Gorbachev’s Abandoned ‘European Home’
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]
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Twenty-five years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev became the general
secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union. Twenty years ago, at the Congress of People’s
Deputies, he was elected as the first and — as it turned out — the
last president of the Soviet Union. A few days ago, state-run
pollster VTsIOM published the results of a survey showing that
Russians are gradually taking a more positive view of the
perestroika period. Today, 41 percent of those surveyed hold a
negative attitude toward perestroika, whereas five years ago that
number was 56 percent. Even with this positive trend, it will be
many years before Russia and the West give a common appraisal of
the events between 1985 and 1991.

The difference in perceptions is easily explained. Many Russians
acknowledge that the Soviet Union’s fatal problems began long
before Gorbachev became general secretary on March 11, 1985. But
there is no getting around the fact that Gorbachev himself came to
symbolize that collapse. For the West, Gorbachev symbolizes the
start of a new epoch, even if 20 years later the outlook is not
quite as rosy as when the Berlin Wall came down. In general, the
expectations of both sides did not bear out, but for different

One of the more important points of Gorbachev’s legacy is his
idea of a common European home. Almost nobody mentions it today,
although there was a time when it seemed that nothing could stand
in the way of its realization. After all, Moscow had rejected its
totalitarian ideology and was looking for common ground with the
West. Just the same, in the midst of that euphoria, sociologist
Ralf Dahrendorf authored the 1990 book “Reflections on the
Revolution in Europe” in which he wrote: “If there is a common
European house or home to aim for, it is … not Gorbachev’s but one
to the West of his and his successors’ crumbling empire. … Europe
ends at the Soviet border, wherever that may be.” Dahrendorf
defined Europe as a political community where “small and
medium-sized countries try to determine their destiny together. A
superpower has no place in their midst, even if it is not an
economic and perhaps no longer a political giant.” Nobody has yet
described the situation more accurately.

The original wave of European Union expansion, first anticipated
in the early 1990s, focused on technical and legal criteria for
membership without any discussion of how far that expansion might
extend — that is, without defining Europe’s borders. It was
considered politically incorrect to do so. But at some point, most
people understood by default that Europe and the European Union
were synonymous. At least it was assumed that the gradual increase
in the number of states adopting European rules and practices — the
system by which the European Union expanded — would eventually
transform the geographic territory of Europe into a common

As a country that played the decisive role in the collapse of
the Soviet Union, could Russia have become a part of Europe? During
a brief stage of democratic euphoria, Moscow was ready to merge
with the European-Atlantic community on practically any terms.
During these friendly times, the door was formally open for Russia,
but at the same time nobody thought seriously that Russia would
ultimately be accepted into that community. While Russia remained
weak and strove toward integration, Europe savored its “trophies”
and assumed that Russia had no other options but to adopt Western
values and institutions. But when the EU had just about finished
swallowing up Central and Eastern Europe, it became clear that
Russia, recovering from its geopolitical knockout, reacquired its
superpower ambitions. Despite Russia’s weak position internally and
globally in the early and mid-1990s, it was unable to part with its
self-image as a superpower.

Now Moscow does not strive for integration but wants to see
itself as an independent power center and as an alternative to
Brussels. Ambitions were split along opposing paths. Russia either
could become a competitor to Europe in the global arena — as the
Soviet Union essentially was along with its Warsaw Pact allies — or
else become a full-fledged member of Europe on an equal basis with
Brussels — a second power center within a common European house.
Gorbachev contemplated the second version, but the collapse of the
Soviet Union buried those hopes. Now, Russia lacks the will,
resources and ability to compete with the EU but still sincerely
believes that it can achieve this status in the near future.

Meanwhile, the European community is in a deep state of
confusion. Europe’s ability to function will always be limited as
long as Russia is not included as an equal partner, and the
campaign among Eastern European members of the EU to isolate Russia
only undermines efforts to increase European unity. It is no
coincidence that the idea to bring Russia into NATO has been raised
from time to time in Europe and the United States. The most recent
example is a letter from a group of influential German politicians
headed by former Defense Minister Volker Ruehe.

During the past 20 years, we didn’t witness the unification of
Europe, but the continual shift of its borders to the east. Though
that phenomenon was the focus of world politics in the past, now
both a weakened Russia and a stronger Europe are under the threat
of becoming marginalized because the main events of global politics
are taking place elsewhere on the planet. Thus, the attempt “to
determine destiny together” is of vital importance not for “small
and medium-sized countries” as Dahrendorf wrote, but for Russia and
the rest of Europe, which are themselves gradually becoming “small
and medium-sized” compared to the rest of the world.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly rising Asia, shifting the most
important global power centers far from Europe, Gorbachev’s notion
of a common European and Russian home might be sidelined. Even if
this house is one day built, it may be located in the boondocks of
global politics.

«The Moscow Times»