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Gorbachev failed. That’s why he was showered with honors.

The last ruler of the USSR never intended to break it up.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, in Bonn, West Germany, on June 13, 1989.Fritz Reiss/Associated Press

For more than 30 years, honors rained down on Mikhail Gorbachev. The last ruler of the Soviet Union, who died Tuesday at 91, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but that was only the most illustrious of his many decorations. Also bestowed on him were the Indira Gandhi Prize, the Augsburg Peace Prize, the Media Freedom Prize, the Athenagoras Humanitarian Award, the Dresden Prize, the Liberty Medal of the National Constitution Center, the Order of the White Lion, and so many others — including dozens of honorary degrees — that to list them all would consume the rest of this column.

I’ll mention just one more: In 1992, Gorbachev became the first recipient of the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award. It was presented at the Reagan Presidential Library by the former president himself. The irony of the occasion could hardly have escaped either man, though neither would have expressed it aloud.


Reagan’s greatest goal had been for the West to win the Cold War. He strove to leave the Soviet Union, outperformed and moribund, “on the ash heap of history.” Gorbachev’s goal had been to strengthen and preserve the Soviet Union — to revitalize the communist empire by reforming it.

When they met at that awards ceremony in 1992, both men understood — the whole world understood — that the Gipper had achieved his objective, while the eighth and final general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party had failed at his. It is one of the paradoxes of 20th-century statecraft that the vanquished former leader was the one showered with tributes — including one conferred on him by the former adversary who had done so much to propel what he called the “evil empire” toward its dissolution. Of the more than 12,000 entries in The New Yale Book of Quotations, there is one that mentions Gorbachev by name. It is Reagan’s unforgettable 1987 exhortation at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Gorbachev ignored Reagan’s words at the time. But the wall came down.


I met Gorbachev once. He was in Boston in 1997 in connection with the foundation he had established at Northeastern University and he came to the Globe for a meeting with some writers and editors. I was curious to know whether, when all was said and done, he regretted that the Berlin Wall had been toppled: “You always described yourself as a convinced communist. Your policies of glasnost and perestroika were intended to restore faith in communism. Yet every country in Eastern Europe abandoned communist rule. Do you think they made a mistake?”

Through a translator, he declined to give a yes-or-no answer. “The important thing is that the countries of Eastern Europe made their own decisions for themselves,” he said.

Even if he could never bring himself to acknowledge the inherent evil of communism, it was to Gorbachev’s lasting credit that when Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria chose to exit the Soviet orbit, he did not send in the tanks. That was the reason for all those prizes and awards, the reason he was so immensely popular in the West, the reason obituaries this week referred to him as a “liberator.”


But he wasn’t a liberator. He was never an admirer of liberal capitalism — as recently as 2019 he told an interviewer that he had wanted “more socialism,” not less. He deserves praise for not resorting to bloodshed to keep the Iron Curtain up and Moscow’s Eastern European satrapies down. But choosing not to commit mass murder or perpetuate slavery is not the same thing as choosing to save lives or free the enslaved.

And when it came to the former Soviet republics, Gorbachev’s attitude was far less enlightened. He may have been willing to take solace in the fact that the nations of Eastern Europe “made their own decisions for themselves,” as he said in that Boston meeting, but the right of the USSR’s constituent republics to do the same thing was something he never accepted.

In his 1999 book, “On My Country and the World,” Gorbachev was still smoldering over the breakup of the Soviet Union.

“The dissolution of the Union radically changed the situation in Europe and the world, disrupted the geopolitical balance, and undermined the possibility of carrying further many positive processes that were under way in world politics by the end of 1991,” he wrote. “I am convinced that the world today would be living more peacefully if the Soviet Union — of course in a renewed and reformed version — had continued to exist.” That isn’t so different from Vladimir Putin’s oft-repeated lament that the dissolution of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”


Gorbachev was not prepared to send tanks and troops to subdue Warsaw and Prague, but closer to home — at least at first — he had no such qualms.

“As early as 1986, nationalist protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, were put down with a massive show of force,” recalled Leonid Bershidsky in a Bloomberg essay. “In April 1991, the Soviet military killed 21 protesters and wounded hundreds more in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. . . . People were killed as they protested in Dushanbe, Baku, and Riga,” the capitals, respectively, of Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Latvia. In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers moved directly into crowds of civilians demonstrating for freedom. Hundreds of protesters were wounded and at least 14 people — two of them teenagers — were murdered.

Fortunately for the former Soviet republics, Gorbachev’s tolerance for slaughter was low. He was too decent to successfully rule an evil empire. When he first rose to the highest position in the Kremlin in 1985, the longtime Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko vouched for his ruthlessness. “Comrades, this man has a nice smile,” Gromyko told the Politburo. “But he has teeth of iron.”

He didn’t live up to that billing. Maybe he wished he could be more brutal, but ultimately Gorbachev chose not to follow the path of unlimited bloodshed. As it became clear that the great Soviet revival he had hoped to engineer would come to naught, he did not resort to bullets to cling to power. “He will go down as a giant not because he succeeded but because he failed repeatedly,” wrote R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. in The American Spectator. “But in his repeated failures he made the world a better place.” There are worse ways to be remembered.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.