European Affairs

"Gorby" Still Clings to the Socialist Dream     Print Email

Reviewed by Peter S. Rashish

It is hard to think of anyone to whom the expression "No one is a prophet in his own country" applies more aptly than former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Here is the man who led his country out of 70 years of totalitarian, Communist repression, who was a crucial player in ending 45 years of Cold War, and who freed the non-Russian republics from their forced links within the Soviet Union. Yet, in Russia's 1996 Presidential election Gorbachev received less than one percent of the vote, and his current role in Russia's political life is insignificant.

Outside Russia, however, Gorbachev turned into a near pop icon. "Gorby," this Russian teddy bear, chatty, good-humored, earnestly concerned about the fate of the globe, became the darling of even ardent cold warriors like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. While his star has faded somewhat, he remains the President of the Moscow-based Gorbachev Foundation, with a North American branch based at Northeastern University in Boston, and is a regular on the international conference circuit.

He is also the author of four books, of which On My Country and the World is the most recent. Part of Gorbachev's precipitous fall in popularity within his own country is undoubtedly due to many Russians' urge to lock the door of Soviet bad times behind them and throw away the key.

Others, nostalgic for the good old days, date Russia's fall from greatness to Gorbachev's reign. But what of the views he currently espouses? Who is the post-Communist Gorbachev? Like former chief executives Nixon and Carter, he has led an active post-Presidency. What has the decade since the end of the Cold War taught him?

This book is full of answers, many of which are likely to be both surprising and uncomfortable for Americans and Russians alike. On the one hand, he criticizes the lack of democracy within his native Russia, sounding like a much more convincing defender of civil liberties than any of Russia's current crop of leaders. On the other hand, he stubbornly holds onto the dream of socialism - a democratic socialism, of course, based on the rule of law, tolerance, and human rights, but one that firmly rejects what he calls the "neo-liberal" consensus that now seems to reach from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

Where Gorbachev's particular take on events is likely to find most adherents is with the emerging community of non-governmental organizations, European green and alternative left parties, and others who, while firmly in the "Western" camp, critique the status quo of turbo-capitalism, nationalism, and power politics.

For example, look at what Gorbachev has to say about globalization. On the one hand, it "opens up for all the world and for each country new and previously unheard-of chances to accelerate development, to link up with the most advanced forms and methods of production, and to participate in the exchange of cultural and intellectual values." On the other hand, "it gives those nations and giant monopolies that are economically, technically, and politically more powerful the ability to exploit other countries and populations and extract enormous profits."

Gorbachev's approach to international security places him firmly among the internationalist, anti-realpolitik crowd. He reproaches NATO for its invasion of Serbia - not because it was a blow to an important Russian ally, but rather because the Atlantic Alliance lacked a United Nations mandate to do so. He sees the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on the environment and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as models for global governance.

He even suggests that it should be possible "to coordinate the intelligence services of permanent members of the UN Security Council (and, over the long-term, possibly include other democratic governments) to combat terrorism, drug trafficking, and the illegal arms trade." Perhaps, but let's not hold our breath.

While many of the views he espouses place him outside the mainstream in the United States and (to a lesser degree) Europe, Gorbachev draws one controversial lesson from the experience of the Soviet Union's breakup that bears pondering. An ardent federalist, Gorbachev says that the problems facing the former Soviet republics - and, by implication, those Russia faces in Chechnya - would have been avoided without the rush to national self-determination after 1991.

He points to the European Union as one model for how states can organize themselves to balance competing regional, ethnic, national, and supranational interests. But it is far from clear that, say, Kiev or Almaty would welcome the kind of relationship with Moscow that Paris and Berlin enjoy with Brussels.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.

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