At the end of the 1980s there were high hopes for democracy worldwide. There was strong support in Russia (and in the Soviet Union as a whole) for the new freedoms and for elections with choice for a legislature with real powers.
Contrary to later misinformation and false memories, Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of 1989 was still the most popular politician in Russia and within the wider Union. (It was in May-June 1990, as we know from VTsIOM survey research, that he was overtaken in popularity by Boris Yeltsin who played the Russian card against the Union.) There was popular support also for the increasingly friendly and constructive relationship between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the rest of Europe and the United States, on the other.
In sharp contrast with US experience, there had been scarcely a Soviet family which had not suffered greatly in World War Two. Not surprisingly, the dread of war was more intensively felt by the average Russian than by the average American, for their wartime lives (and war deaths of almost 27 million in the Soviet case compared with approximately 400,000 for the US) were so very different. Thus, for Russians – and for Soviet citizens more generally – the amicable visit of President Ronald Reagan to Moscow in June 1988 was a welcome sign that the world had become a safer place. The stormy seas that complicated the logistics of the Malta summit between Gorbachev and President George Bush (the elder) in December 1989 were in sharp contrast with the calm and constructive discussion. At the end of that summit meeting, an American president and Soviet leader for the first time ever gave a joint press conference, standing side by side. To the regret both of Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and of the US ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock, the Bush administration had been slow to engage with the Soviet leadership, but by the later months of 1989 was making up for lost time. Matlock regarded the Malta summit as the point at which Bush at last ‘resumed the active policy Reagan had followed during his final years in office’.
The most salient manifestation of the Cold War was the division of Europe which had existed since Soviet-style regimes were imposed on the countries liberated by Soviet troops in the Second World War. When the peoples of those central and eastern European countries were able peacefully (except in Romania where the Soviet leadership had little or no influence on the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu) to exercise the freedom to choose their own political and economic system, of which Gorbachev had spoken in a landmark speech at the United Nations on 7 December 1988, the Cold War was surely over.
That UN speech was an outstanding example of the New Thinking of the perestroika era which was not only ahead of its time then but also ahead of our time today. It could be praised as visionary or criticized as unrealistic and utopian, but that raises the question, what is realism? Is it realistic to believe that in periods of high tension, inflamed nationalism, and countries armed with weapons of mass destruction, there is no danger of catastrophic war as a result of political miscalculation, human error or technical malfunction? Is it realistic to downplay environmental degradation and man-made climate change rather than take the ecological threat to humanity and the planet seriously?
Few heads of government at that time paid as much attention to the natural environment and to ‘green’ issues. In his 1988 UN speech he spoke of ‘the worldwide ecological threats’ which in many regions had become ‘simply frightening’, and he called for a centre for ecological assistance to be set up under the auspices of the United Nations. Gorbachev spoke of the need to seek ‘an all-human consensus on movement towards a new world order’, but progress must not be at ‘the expense of the rights and freedoms of the individual or of nations or at the expense of the natural world’. He noted that a ‘one-sided emphasis on military strength’ ultimately ‘weakens other components of national security’. He stressed the cardinal importance of ‘freedom of choice’ as ‘a universal principle’ from which there must be no exceptions. But when, he observed, democratic values took the form of an ‘export order’ they frequently and quickly became degraded. The times, said Gorbachev, demanded ‘a deideologization of interstate relationships’, with common humanity prevailing over the multiplicity of centrifugal forces in order to preserve ‘the viability of a civilization that is possibly the only one in the universe’.
I would argue that the Cold War ended ideologically with that Gorbachev UN speech, it ended symbolically with the 1989 Malta summit, and it ended concretely when East Europeans, in the course of 1989, were able to exercise that freedom of political choice of which Gorbachev had spoken the previous year. The peaceful transfer of power in Eastern Europe was both stimulated and facilitated by liberalization and democratization, and the new tolerance, in the Soviet Union. The first seriously contested elections in Communist Europe were not in Poland, though the Polish June 1989 elections signified the end of Communist rule in that country, but in the Soviet Union itself in March of the same year. However, events moved even more quickly in East Europe than in the USSR. Encouraged by the expanding political pluralism in the regional hegemon and the benign international atmosphere, East Europeans did what they would have done decades earlier had they not had reason to believe that doing so would lead to Soviet armed intervention. Transformative change began in Hungary and Poland. Its manifestations later in the year included the accidental but politically irreversible opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November. It culminated in the ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia which saw Alexander Dubček become Chairman of the Federal Assembly on 28 December, followed the very next day by that legislature electing Václav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia.
The three decades since the Soviet Union ceased to exist in December 1991 have been experienced differently from one European country to another and differently from one group to another within each country. Internationally, they have been a time of major errors and missed opportunities. It is probably going too far to call the current East-West tensions a new Cold War (although Robert Legvold, in a thoughtful book, does so), for the ‘real Cold War’ involved not only political, economic and military competition but a struggle between two universalist, proselytizing and incompatible ideologies. There is now much less ideological fervour, whether real or synthetic, and there are fewer claims by either side to possess political truths of universal applicability. Yet, we are further away than we were thirty years ago from Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘common European house’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘Europe whole and free’, not to speak of the ‘new world order’ of which, first Gorbachev, in his 1988 UN speech, and then Bush (in 1990 and 1991) both spoke.
The faults lie on both sides. The abandonment of arms reduction and arms control agreements of the perestroika era has made the world a more dangerous place, and NATO expansion, which was opposed by such distinguished and well-informed Americans as George Kennan and William (Bill) Perry, has been interpreted in Moscow as imposing a new Cold War dividing line in Europe, but this time closer to Russia.
In 1990 US Secretary of State James Baker told Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that the US was ‘committed to building the pan-European security institutions desired by the Soviet Union’, and President Bush in the same year informed President Gorbachev that the US did not want ‘winners and losers’ but a Soviet Union ‘integrated … into the new Europe’. Had Gorbachev succeeded in his aim of preserving a ‘Union state’ – through voluntary agreement in a process of negotiation – the chances of creating new pan-European security institutions which would embrace, rather than isolate, Russia would have been much greater.
At that time there were relations of trust between Moscow and the other European capitals and between Gorbachev and his foreign policy team in Moscow and the Bush-Baker leadership in Washington. Bush did nothing to exacerbate Gorbachev’s domestic difficulties or to undermine his efforts to hold a Union together by persuasion. He turned to ill-judged triumphalist rhetoric only after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and he was competing for re-election to the presidency.
It is worth recalling that in the late 1980s, Soviet prestige in most of the rest of the world was higher than it had ever been (higher, indeed, than that of Russia has been at any time subsequently). Even many Conservative Western leaders such as Margaret Thatcher (in fact, especially Thatcher) understood that the change in Soviet domestic and foreign policy was fundamental, not cosmetic. Democracy-building is extremely difficult, however, in the absence of consensus on what constitute the boundaries of the state and lack of agreement on the procedures for settling disputes on this issue within a multinational state. The nationalities question, whose roots and problems went back to Stalin or even to Imperial Russia, ultimately destabilized the Union. To build on the foundations of pluralist democracy, which were laid in the last years of the Soviet Union, should have been easier in post-Soviet Russia where Russians constitute four-fifths of the population and the nations which were in the vanguard of the struggle for national independence (the Baltic states, in the first instance) achieved their goal in 1991.
True in principle though that may be, it has not been true in practice. In approximately half of the successor states of the USSR, including Russia, there were more vibrant democratic institutions and more democratic accountability in the last years of the Soviet Union than exist today.
The recently elected American President Joe Biden has spoken of the ‘fragility of democracy’. He had good reason to do so, and he did not need to go far from home to find evidence of that fragility. It was exemplified by the contempt for democratic institutions of his predecessor Donald Trump who refused to accept the legitimacy of a presidential election he comprehensively lost.
Easy optimism, whether on the prospect for harmonious international relations or the progress of democracy, is now in short supply. That is not to say that the principles and policies Mikhail Gorbachev embraced in the second half of the 1980s and beginning of the nineties (his own political evolution during that time taking him from Communist reformer to social democrat) are less relevant today than they were then. It is, rather, that we now know that they were even harder to establish and consolidate than he, and many of us, realized at the time.
Especially as it was expounded in Gorbachev’s 1988 UN speech, it embodied not only an idealism largely absent from current international discourse but also a higher realism. Re-evaluation of the huge achievements of the perestroika years, as well as the failures during them and since, is an unfinished task – one, indeed, which will continue to occupy future generations, assuming we and they succeed in maintaining civilized life on the planet. Approaching that study with an open mind may even suggest ways of halting and reversing the downward spiral towards creeping authoritarianism, confrontation and catastrophe.
This article has been publushed in Russian in Rossiya v globalnoy politike journal, #3. 2021.
 We know from the most reliable and professional of the survey research conducted in the later perestroika years by VTsIOM that more than 80 percent of Soviet citizens wholly or partly supported the political changes of which Mikhail Gorbachev was the initiator and facilitator. In December 1989, 49 percent of respondents in Russia and 52 percent in the entire Union wholly approved of Mikhail Gorbachev’s activities and a further 32 percent (in both Russia and the USSR) partly approved (V kakoy mere vy odobryaete deyatel’nost’ M.S. Gorbacheva?, VTsIOM, Moscow, 1990).
 Reytingi Boris Yel’tsina i Mikhaila Gorbacheva po 10-bal’noy shkale (VTsIOM, Moscow, 1993).
 Jack F. Matlock, Jr, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (Random House, New York, 2004), p. 315.
 ‘Vystuplenie v organizatsii ob”edinnyk natsiy’ in M.S. Gorbachev, Izbrannye rechi i stat’i, Vol. VII (Politizdat, Moscow, 1990), p. 193.
 Ibid., p. 187.
 Ibid., p. 188.
 Ibid., p. 189.
 Robert Legvold, Return to Cold War (Polity, Cambridge, 2016).
 Joshua R. Izkowitz Shifrinson, ‘Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion’, International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4, 2016, pp. 30-31.
 ‘Trump impeachment trial: Biden warns democracy is fragile’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56061100.