This April, it is 20 years since Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
A series of old leaders had just died, and Gorbachev managed to take over as a representrative of a somewhat younger and less ossified generation of Soviet leaders.
The rest – as they say – is history. History still in the making, I would add.
The greatness of Gorbachev rested on his fundamental misunderstanding of the Soviet system. He genuinely believed that it could be reformed and modernized, and that it accordingly was not only wrong but also unnecessary to call out the tanks when the system was seen to be under threat.
The previous generations of Soviet leaders had certainly not been under that illusion – as witnessed dramatically in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not to speak of the massive use of repressive force within the Soviet Union itself.
Some time after having achieved his position, Gorbachev started to talk about ”perestroika” – openness. And that unleashed a stream of calls for changes that eventually were to unravel the entire Soviet Union, its socialist system and its decades-long empire in Europe.
It’s doubtful that Gorbachev ever understood what was really happening. But his greatness was that – with some exceptions, primarily in the Baltic countries – at each stage of the dissolution of the system, either resisted or was reluctant to endorse those that more or less openly advocated a return to the old methods of repression to defend te system.
Accordlingly, the collapse just continued, eventually to destroy the position, power and prestigre of Gorbachev himself. The more dedicated and aware reformer Boris Yeltsin simply took over when Gorbachev had lost it all.
Since then we have seen a decade of Yeltsin reforms and Yeltsin decay, and a term of Putin stability followed by the present term of Putin stagntion.
There are increasing question marks over where Russia is heading. Away from democrcy – certainly. Less of the necessary economic reforms – also fairly obvious. But the picture remains a very mixed one.
Dimitri Trenin recently pointed out that Russia is more than the stagnation and de-democratization of Putin:
”The millions of consumers exercising their right to choose in the rapidly growing supermarket chains; the planeloads of business travelers converging on London, Zurich and Frankfurt daily; the holiday-makers who, having lost the Crimea, have rediscovered the Mediterranean — all are part of a Russia beyond Putin’s Russia, one that will grow and develop even when Putin is history.”
This is also part of the new Russian reality, and the key question remains whether it is the old statist and centralists tendencies now dominating much of the Kremlin, or the dynamism of a new Russian generation as well as of parts of the economy that we are also seeing, that will dominate the coming one or two Russian decades.