Mikhail Gorbachev was unlike any Soviet leader who came before him, although when he became general secretary of the Communist Party in early 1985 it was not clear to many Western observers just how different Gorbachev would turn out to be. Even to Gorbachev himself, then 54 years old and a committed Communist, it may have been impossible to foresee all the radical consequences of his reform agenda.
Gorbachev had an unusually open mind for any world leader, let alone the head of a state built upon Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies. He understood the West better than any of his predecessors. Gorbachev knew that the reality of life in the Soviet Union did not square with its utopian propaganda. And, unlike most leaders in world history, he deliberately eroded the foundations of his own power and, therefore, the Communist state. Instead of retightening the clamp of repression, Gorbachev decided the system should be replaced once his reforms failed to save Communism from itself.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Archie Brown, an emeritus professor of politics at Oxford who has studied Soviet Communism since the 1960s, discusses Gorbachev’s role in transforming the USSR and de-escalating the Cold War. The last Soviet leader did not intend to dissolve his nation-state, but once that process became irreversible, Gorbachev hoped Russia would join a “common European community” built on peace and cooperation rather than coercion and division.
“He introduced a greater measure of democracy than Russia had ever known, not to mention his role in ending the Cold War,” Mr. Brown said.
Gorbachev’s openness — his willingness to question the doctrines in which he had been inculcated — was influenced by his education at Moscow University in the 1950s, and later by his frequent travels to Western Europe where he witnessed a greater standard of living than what had been achieved in his home country
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“He was a true-believing, Marxist-Leninist Communist as a young man, but he also had access to more humanistic literature,” Mr. Brown said. “He learned not only from reading but also his trips abroad.”
This is why by 1988 Gorbachev said something no Communist leader in the world had ever stated before, at least not publicly: “We, of course, are far from laying claim to indisputable truth.” This quote appears in Mr. Brown’s latest book, “The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War.”
Listen to Archie Brown talk about why Gorbachev decided to launch his reform agenda, his relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and the legacy of the Soviet leader’s accomplishments as well as his failures, by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.