Gorbachev Is the Last 20th-Century Wilsonian
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

I first met former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in person in
1992 during a round-table discussion. Several months earlier, he
stepped down from power. We all expected that Gorbachev, now freed
from the burden of authority, would tell us what he was prohibited
from saying earlier: the truth about events leading to the end of
communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he only spoke
of the very things we had already grown so tired of hearing in
recent years — of perfecting socialism and of the lost opportunity
to preserve the renewed union.

The crowd gradually thinned as people lost interest, and I
unexpectedly found myself alone with Gorbachev. Our conversation
never touched on anything weighty, but from Gorbachev emanated a
powerful charisma that seemed to envelop me. I still remember how
it was ­impossible to avoid falling under his spell.

Seventeen years later, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the
fall of the Berlin Wall, I once again met with Gorbachev, this time
intent on learning his views of those epochal events two decades

I did not hear anything fundamentally new during our two-hour
talk, but I think I learned the secret of his charisma. Gorbachev
has a strong and healthy inner core. He was then, and is now,
convinced of the correctness of his actions. It is not a merely
intellectual conviction, but a moral one. Gorbachev did not have a
transition strategy at the time, but he had an understanding of
what was right and what was wrong, what actions were morally
acceptable and which were not. The real mystery is how he retained
his strong sense of values even while rising through the ranks of
the Communist Party. However it happened, that moral force makes a
strong impression, even if his views now seem out of touch with

Gorbachev continues to admire Lenin and considers him a model
politician — bold and full of conviction, yet flexible and capable
of making major tactical shifts. He sees Lenin as the supreme
innovator and Stalin as the ultimate tyrant.

Had a person with Gorbachev’s views and values rose to power in
the 1960s — when the Soviet Union had more diversified economic
potential and the public had not yet become so thoroughly cynical —
maybe he would have had a chance to turn the country toward
something more productive. But Gorbachev inherited a society that
was no longer capable of reforming itself. True, he does not
believe that himself. Gorbachev continues to blame just one person
for all that happened — former President Boris Yeltsin. His anger
is strong and very personal. He refuses to acknowledge that the
Soviet economy was in shambles. Gorbachev still maintains that he
lost not an economic battle, but a political one, and that if
Yeltsin had not stabbed him in the back he could have overcome all
the other obstacles in his path.

Gorbachev’s attitude toward the West differs from that of both
his two immediate successors. The post-Soviet Russian stance has
fluctuated between early Yeltsin-era toadyism and the defiant
self-assertion of Vladimir Putin. The roots of both feelings can be
found in a lack of self-confidence. Gorbachev did not suffer from
that problem, nor does he now, despite his own political
misfortunes and fall from power. He has retained a sense of
personal dignity. He is also dumbfounded when he sees how the
former Soviet satellites and Baltic states so eagerly handed over
to Washington and Brussels the very sovereignty they had fought so
hard to obtain from Moscow, even though it was Gorbachev who
started this process by revoking the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Most Russians believe that the West reneged on its verbal
promise not to expand NATO. According to Gorbachev, the accession
of the newly unified Germany into NATO — the only expansion of that
alliance discussed at the time — was not part of a separate deal,
but part of an overall restructuring of Europe and the world. But
those plans could not be carried out once the Soviet Union ceased
to exist.

Gorbachev’s plan was to convert the end of the Cold War — a
unique confrontation that never degenerated into a direct clash —
into a “joint venture” of sorts between two superpowers. But that
never happened because, as it turned out, the Soviet ship, with
Gorbachev as captain, sank.

Today, Moscow has once again become fixated on the idea of
having a buffer zone along its borders. And that approach to
ensuring national security is perfectly reasonable if you assume
that it’s “every man for himself.” Gorbachev has a different
approach — that of an integral and indivisible security
architecture. It is no coincidence that he frequently quotes former
U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “There can either be peace for
everyone, or for no one.”

What Russians considered and still consider as Gorbachev’s
naivete or even worse, his treason, is in fact a very conscious
political idealism — one in which he, surprisingly, still has not
lost faith. Gorbachev was the last Wilsonian of the 20th century.
Like former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson during World War I,
Gorbachev believed in “new thinking” in the name of global harmony.
Having conceived the League of Nations, ­Wilson could not
convince his own ­countrymen to support the concept, and that
organization entered history as a symbol of helplessness. But that
idea outlived its author and was finally deemed successful when the
United Nations was created in 1945. The UN served as a stabilizing
force in global affairs until the end of the Cold War, and it will
probably regain this role in the future.

The world of the 21st century has not lived up to the
expectations of Gorbachev or of those who, after the collapse of
the Soviet Union, proclaimed themselves the victors. Meanwhile, the
new world order has not taken shape — at least not as it was
envisioned by Gorbachev or by former U.S. Presidents George H.W.
Bush and George W. Bush. Like Wilson before him, Gorbachev
witnessed the failure of his attempts to overcome superpower egoism
for the sake of the common good.

Gorbachev’s and Wilson’s idealism remain milestones on the path
toward progress. But the regularity with which politics chews up
and spits out the latest idealist and then continues on with
business as usual leads me to doubt whether any progress has been
achieved at all.

«The Moscow Times»