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  • Mikhail S. Gorbachev:An Exceptional Leader
  • George W. Breslauer (bio)

It is a great honor to be asked to comment on an article by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, a man who is one of my political heroes. I must confess that his leadership was the highlight of my long academic career. After almost two decades of observing Brezhnevism in power, we finally got a chance to find out whether the Soviet system, and its position in the international arena, were fundamentally changeable.

That said, an evaluation of Gorbachev's leadership must be a complex exercise. Calling him a "transformational leader" may capture his aspirations, but could leave the impression that he succeeded in transforming the "old" into something new, coherent, and lasting. Calling him an "event-making man" highlights the reality that, absent Gorbachev's exceptional qualities as a leader, no such radical reform would have taken place. Calling him a "hero," in most usages, is a normative claim, invoked by those who applaud his aspirations and share his values.

But even if we put aside the normative question, assigning the label of "hero" can obscure the fact that, in some areas of policy, Gorbachev failed on his own terms. For it is undeniable that, in the end, Gorbachev did not welcome or advocate many of the things that came to pass: the dissolution of the Soviet Union into fifteen independent states; the lack of any politically "leading role" for the CPSU in the new order; the disorderly disintegration, rather than reform, of the command economy ("spontaneous privatization" [i.e., theft] of state assets by the managerial class and organized crime); the overthrow of all the communist states of Eastern Europe; or the reunification of Germany within NATO. And, of course, he did not welcome being forced out of power in December 1991 by Boris Yeltsin.

In the end, Mikhail Sergeyevich did not provide us with conclusive evidence that the "Soviet system" was "reformable." What he did demonstrate was that, through exceptionally skilled leadership by a man [End Page 249] of democratic orientation, the ancien régime could be brought down peacefully, and that such a leader could serve as midwife for the birth of a new, more democratic political order and for an alternative to "anti-imperialist" struggle as the country's defining mission in world affairs. Gorbachev's desacralization of the Soviet political and ideological order, and his midwifery of a new order at home and abroad, is, in my eyes, his greatest accomplishment as a leader. His inability to raise the infant to maturity is, however, undeniable and must be his greatest disappointment.

What did Gorbachev accomplish and how did he manage to accomplish it? Once we list the accomplishments at home and abroad, I am impressed by how much Gorbachev managed to achieve in such a short period of time. The list is breath-taking, both in the scope of changes in domestic and foreign policy alike, and in terms of the leadership skills required to secure adoption and implementation of those changes. Most observers of the Brezhnev era grew accustomed to assuming that the power of the sclerotic Party-State—the pervasive and sacralized nomenklatura backed by a suffocating KGB and its countrywide corps of informers, the domination of resource allocation by the military-industrial complex, and support for tit-for-tat Cold War policies—would preclude what came about under Gorbachev. And most observers would have assumed that a man of Gorbachev's intellectual flexibility and democratizing ideals would never make it to the top of the Party-State hierarchy, much less be allowed to promulgate such radical policy changes once he was at the top.

And yet he did make it to the top and did radicalize policy after going slow during his first year in power: glasnost, perestroika, demokratizatsiya, and "new thinking" in foreign policy were rapidly radicalized in 1986-1990. Gorbachev certainly qualifies as an "event-making man"—a leader without whom policies this radical would not have been adopted. We can list the relentless expansion of civil liberties; the public desacralization of the existing political order, which helped to strip the nomenklatura of its sense of impunity; the introduction of competitive...


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pp. 249-253
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