Everyone – the West, Putin, China – learned the wrong lessons from the Gorbachev era

Gorbachev’s experience showed Chinese Communist Party leaders that if you gave people a taste of freedom they would look for more

There are two Mikhail Gorbachevs. One is the provincial apparatchik who became the Soviet Union’s last leader and in the process changed the course of history. He died this week, aged 91. The other Gorbachev, the myth, was in place long before his death, and over the years the two have become harder to disentangle. As soon as Gorbachev signed the decree that dissolved the Soviet empire in December 1991, the battle over how to interpret those seismic days was under way. And it continues still. The very different lessons that Washington, Beijing and Moscow chose to draw from the collapse of the Soviet Union are still shaping today’s world.

In the West, Gorbachev was acclaimed for having ended the Cold War, ushering in a new era of freedom in Russia and for setting out a vision of an open, democratic state to replace the sclerotic communist system. He may not have set out to dismantle the Soviet Union, but his policies of glasnost and perestroika, openness and reform, made it inevitable. While Gorbachev ensured the Soviet Union would fall when he refused in the end to meet popular protest with violence, however, the momentum came from below – from the eastern Europeans and others who took to the streets, and from the Russians who got a taste for freedom and resolved not to give it up.

Yet the West saw the end of the Cold War, framed always in the language of military confrontation, as its own victory – every war must have a winner and a loser, after all. That set the tone for the hubris and complacency of the decades that followed. For American conservatives the fall of the Berlin Wall was the end of history; liberal democracy was ascendant, and the West was invincible.

That triumphalism laid the ground for some of the biggest US foreign policy disasters that were to follow, up to and including the invasion of Iraq, based on the same idea that military pressure could unlock democracy everywhere. It also set the terms of future relations with Moscow. “By claiming victory,” wrote Arkady Ostrovsky in The Invention of Russia, “the West created a fertile ground for a sense of victimhood, skilfully fanned and exploited two decades later by Putin. If Russia had been defeated it was only logical that one day it would seek revenge.”


If the West recalled Gorbachev’s final days in power as a time of euphoria, authoritarians drew very different lessons. For Chinese Communist Party leaders, Gorbachev’s experience showed that if you gave people a taste of freedom they would always look for more. They concluded that coercive power was the only way to keep that impulse in check.

In June 1989, the Chinese authorities responded with a brutal crackdown when student protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square. A few months later the Berlin Wall came down, and Beijing congratulated itself for not making Gorbachev’s mistake. President Xi Jinping has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a cautionary tale”, one he attributes to “ideological confusion”. Gorbachev believed that economic reform could not work without radical changes in the political system, but Beijing’s entire model assumes he was wrong. Xi’s own policies – stricter social controls, a clampdown on dissent, an anti-corruption crusade and moves to make the Communist Party more central to everyday life – are designed to ensure China does not suffer the same fate.

In Russia itself unwinding Gorbachev’s legacy has been the driving force behind Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Putin was keenly aware of the failures of the communist system. Anyone who didn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union had no heart, he once said, but anyone who wanted it restored had no brain. Yet he experienced the end of the Soviet era as a personal trauma. As a KGB officer, based in Dresden in the 1980s, he missed the glasnost-era highs of that decade – the creative and intellectual ferment, the intoxicating debates and national self-questioning that was no longer off-limits.

He returned home to find his country gone, its people struggling to make ends meet. It was, he would later say, the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, an event that “tore my life apart”. On Putin’s watch individual freedoms have been rolled back and internal dissent has been suppressed. The Kremlin said this week that Putin’s schedule would not permit him to attend Gorbachev’s funeral.

Though Gorbachev did not speak out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the war Putin unleashed in February is a battle between the competing world views that the two men have come to represent. Putin believes the world is a rotten, cynical, brutish place where the strong prevail over the weak and where interests will always trump values. That is how he convinces himself his war of aggression will eventually succeed. But if Ukraine can see off the invading army it will vindicate Gorbachev’s alternative view: that we live in a world that can be made better, where violence is a sign of weakness, not strength, and where the human yearning for freedom will ultimately win out.