In this exclusive interview, renowned international scholar, and author Richard Falk shares commentary on the life of former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022). Falk discusses Gorbachev’s historical influence, legacy and how the mainstream press covered his passing. He also provides an inside look on Gorbachev by way of two interactions he experienced with the former president. Lastly Falk talks about how Russia will remember Gorbachev and the prospects for a balanced assessment of his life. Falk states that, “It may take several more political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War with the West and in taking on the Communist Party elite of bureaucrats (nomenklatura) that presided over the early days of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death.”
Daniel Falcone: Can you briefly comment on Gorbachev’s life? What do you suppose is his historical legacy, especially as it relates to the Cold War? Are you noticing anything unusual or interesting in terms of how the agenda setting media is remembering Gorbachev?
Richard Falk: I think it is safe to say that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest historical impact of any public figure since the end of World War II. To be sure, it is a bitterly polarized legacy. One of unbounded admiration and historical achievement in the West and one of contempt and unconditional disrepute in Russia, holding Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union as a Great Power and its loss of political relevance beyond its territorial borders. It has taken Vladimir Putin, a political figure reviled in the West, to undue Russian irrelevance by launching an aggressive war against Ukraine, but whether the cost is worth even for Russia, only time will tell.
As far as the Cold War is concerned, it was not Gorbachev’s original intention to bring it to an end, but rather to reform the Soviet internal political and economic system so that it would deliver a better life to ordinary people. There is no doubt that Gorbachev was affected by his travels as a young Communist functionary to Europe where he was deeply affected by the vastly higher living standards enjoyed by the peoples of these countries with comparably developed economies to that of the Soviet Union. I remember being told in Moscow by one of his close associates that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what FDR had achieved for capitalism in the United States, nothing more nothing less. His public tactics were to encourage glasnost (freedom of expression) and perestroika (structural reform). I remember a Soviet security specialist in Moscow in the late 1980s telling me somewhat cynically that “we have lots of glasnost, but no perestroika.” It was a widespread critical sentiment expressive of the view of impatient Soviet reforms that Gorbachev was all talk and no action. As he proceeded with this domestic agenda, Gorbachev himself came to realize the depth of corruption and dysfunction throughout the Soviet bureaucracy, making the system almost non-reformable and on the verge of financial and political bankruptcy.
Gorbachev was also affected by the cruelties of the Stalin period, being personally touched by the arrest and prison abuse of both of his grandfathers as political dissidents. In this sense, it seems he was attracted to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. Undoubtedly. feeling blocked at home he sought to wind down the tensions with the West and the costs of the arms race in well-publicized 1986 meeting with Ronald Reagan, the so-called, ‘Reykjavik Summit,’ which led to significant progress in reducing the stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons and gave public opinion that nuclear disarmament might actually happen on his watch. These talks with Reagan in Iceland went so far in the direction of embracing disarmament that the American bipartisan nuclear establishment and compliant media was up in arms, and united in undermining Reagan’s diplomatic credibility when it came to global security, calling him ‘unprepared.’ This show of nuclearism bipartisanship with respect continues to haunt U.S. foreign policy more than 40 years later, persisting despite an atmosphere of extreme political divisiveness on all issues bearing on the daily lives of Americans.
As the Cold War was centered in Europe it was there that Gorbachev’s innovative approach to international relations most clearly manifested itself. Perhaps, challenged by Reagan’s famous taunt in Berlin, “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!” He proceeded to loosen Moscow’s grip on the Warsaw Pact’s bloc of East European counties, respecting their sovereign rights, and making clear that under his leadership there would be no Soviet interventions of the sort that occurred in East Europe from Hungary in 1956 to the Czech Republic in 1968. This process did indeed culminate with the dramatic breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unexpectedly rapid reunification of Germany.
It was in Europe that Gorbachev advocated a hopeful end to the ordeal of a divided Europe, proposing security for ‘our common European home.’ Had these ideas been acted upon by the West, it might have avoided the nightmarish aftermath of the Cold War now being experienced in Ukraine and threatened in relation to Taiwan. It may be that historians will someday come to acknowledge that if Gorbachev’s vision of future East-West engagement in Europe had prevailed rather than the neo-conservative thirst for American geopolitical expansionism, anchored in a revitalized NATO with a much more expansive and flexible mandate embodied in the inflammatory phrase ‘Global NATO.’ This may be the time to remember that NATO was brought into being in 1949 as a strictly defensive alliance, supposedly the centerpiece in the containment policies so persuasive advocated at the time by George F. Kennan as a response to feared Soviet military expansionism Europe. Given the failure to heed Gorbachev on Europe over the decades, despite ending the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev’s legacy is primarily being depicted as bringing the Cold War to an end in ways that allowed the West to pronounce itself ‘the winner,’ not so unlike the aftermath of World War II.
Unlike any leader of a Great Power in his time, Gorbachev made memorable speeches at the UN and elsewhere calling for a more robust internationalism and a geopolitical approach guided by the values of the UN Charter. This advocacy of responsible internationalism and demilitarization endeared Gorbachev to peace activists the world over but was dismissed as nothing more than diplomatic fluff by Beltway and Pentagon gurus who didn’t even take Gorbachev’s global and reform agendas seriously enough to bother refuting them. This life journey of Gorbachev that carried him to the peak of power in the Kremlin, and then following his seven years as head of the Soviet state, toward a post-war sequel that was more in alignment with progressive civil society tendencies than the continuing machinations of the Great Powers.
Daniel Falcone: Over the course of your research and activism, can you describe your experiences or interactions with him? How did his life impact your studies and craft?
Richard Falk: I did have the opportunity on two occasions to interact personally with Gorbachev in a rather extended manner that included time for social engagement. I felt it a great honor to do so as he was already an historic personage of great distinction, and although lauded in the West partly because he paved the way for unipolarity and triumphalism, and possibly even Putin and Putinism, although not through his fault. In an important sense Gorbachev’s international legacy of humane global governance is already but forgotten by the mainstream. The West admired most his decisive role in loosening the Soviet grip on East Europe and unwittingly accelerating the process by which the Soviet internal empire of ‘captive’ fragmented. My two encounters with Gorbachev were after he ceased to be a leader and devoted himself to sharing idea and activities with likeminded individuals.
My first encounter was a day-long meeting in the early 1990s in New York City of a contemplated foundation that he was to co-Chair with James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s influential Secretary of State to support work toward a peaceful world undertaken by politically independent persons. To my astonishment, which has not lessened over the years, I was invited to serve as a member of the initial Board of Directors along with several more mainstream individuals. For undisclosed reasons, Baker was unable to attend the meeting, but Gorbachev, by way of a translator participated throughout the long day, including a small luncheon. The meeting was devoted to what the Foundation might most usefully do, how it would operate, including its plans to establish a funding base. Gorbachev mainly listened, asked useful questions, and projected a demeanor being one among equals. As it happened, nothing further took place, and the whole undertaking was discreetly abandoned. Nevertheless, it did give me a glimpse of this great man adjusting to his new role and status. Looking back, it was a time when Gorbachev continued to identify with the transnational ruling elites of Western countries but showed an intellectual interest in working with more independent individuals in global civil society.
The second encounter was a couple of years later in Italy at a meeting on the future of Europe under the auspices of Gorbachev’s own foundation, bearing his name. The twenty-five or so invited participants were mainly European intellectuals and government officials. It went on for two days, revisiting Gorbachev’s ideas of a common European and collective security structure. The debate was lively and stimulating although the pan-European consensus never got much further than the walls of the conference center. I had the feeling that Gorbachev now felt himself an independent voice of civil society, widely honored in the West yet ignore in his own country. He had returned to living in Moscow and reported that Putin had respectfully received him and made him feel at ease about resuming Russian residence despite his continuing unpopularity in the country of his birth and personal development.
In my own work, I have been conscious of course of Gorbachev’s role as a transformative agent of change that made ‘the impossible’ happen in the Soviet context. Given my interest in ‘the politics of impossibility’ I often mentioned Mandela in South Africa and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union that validated this counter-intuitive notion that seems the only hinge of hope given the present world situation.
It is always of great interest to meet with historic figures of global stature. In Gorbachev I found none of the moral radiance and existential charisma that I associated with my meeting with Nelson Mandela. In Gorbachev I found a sense of purpose, of decency, of intelligence, and a seriousness about doing what he could to make his country, region, and world better than they were at present.
Daniel Falcone: How do you suppose Russia will use the public memory of Gorbachev and his commemoration to suit their own political purposes?
Richard Falk: I would suppose that Putin will not regret the passing of the Communist Era, but will fault Gorbachev on nationalist, Czarist grounds as allowing the territorial extensions of the Soviet Union to shrink, leading to the temporary eclipse of Russian greatness. I would imagine, with minor variations that the Russian media will follow this line, reporting on the loss of popularity that Gorbachev experience, especially in the decade after the Soviet collapse.
It may take several more political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War with the West and in taking on the Communist Party elite of bureaucrats (nomenklatura) that presided over the early days of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death.
Gorbachev memory will last, most celebrated, and subject to subtle reappraisals from within, in relation to Europe, and with regard to world peace. I would feel more comfortable contemplating the future of humanity if Gorbachev was running the show than any other political leader walking about on planet Earth!