Thirty Christmases ago, the Soviet Union breathed its last breath.
On Dec. 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as Soviet president, six years after he took power with every intention of reforming the communist system in order to preserve the Soviet state.
His reforms having failed in their objective, the USSR was now extinct less than 75 years after its violent, revolutionary birth, provoking a triumphalist speech from President George H.W. Bush the same day Gorbachev exited the stage.
Gorbachev had evolved from reformer to transformer. As he loosened the screws of political repression and adopted free market economic reforms, the Soviet leader realized the system would have to be replaced, not merely reformed. Gorbachev came to embrace European democratic socialism, and he sought to end the Cold War confrontation with the U.S. while refusing to use force to restore order in the Eastern Bloc.
But Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev tried – and failed – to preserve the Soviet state.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Oxford University political scientist Archie Brown discusses the reasons why Gorbachev was unable to keep a pluralistic, democratic Soviet Union together, and why most Russians today regret the loss of their superpower status.
“At no stage did he want to see the Soviet Union break up. However, he then had a choice between using force to keep it together or trying to do it by persuasion,” said Mr. Brown, the author of “The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War.”
“He chose to try to do it by persuasion, by negotiation, by decentralizing, by allowing the republics to take a lot of power under a new agreement or a new kind of federalism, because the Soviet Union was a pseudo-federalist state.”
In the face of Boris Yeltsin’s drive for a fully independent Russia, Gorbachev’s negotiations failed. The 1990s turned out to be a deeply disappointing and disheartening decade for Russia, as the nation’s wealth was seized by oligarchs and democracy was subverted. The decade ended with Vladimir Putin in power.
To listen to the full interview with Archie Brown, download this episode of History As It Happens.