Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, passed away on Tuesday, August 30, 2022. The last leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev ushered in what many in the West and Russia hoped would be a new era of democracy and development following the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and opening of Russia to Western markets and development.
Gorbachev's death comes in the midst of Vladimir Putin’s war against democratic Ukraine and a strong return to imperialist ideologies within the Kremlin. To help contextualize the impact of Gorbachev’s legacy, scholars from across the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies offer their reflections of his life and leadership.
A New Kind of Soviet Leader
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller shared some of her personal memories of working with Gorbachev and his government.
"As Gorbachev’s presidency unfolded, it became clear that he was not going to be like the dour and geriatric Soviet Politburo members Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, who had followed each other in quick succession to the Kremlin leadership in the early 1980s. Only 54 when he took office, Gorbachev was easily the most dynamic figure seen in Moscow for nearly 30 years, with the confidence to speak openly on the public stage with foreign leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher."
She continues, "My only personal encounter with Gorbachev came many years later, when I worked in Moscow as director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. A Russian friend who was an associate of Gorbachev asked me if I would like to attend a lunch to celebrate his birthday. 'Of course!' I said. It was an honor for me.
I was pretty much a fly on the wall during the proceedings, since I could keep up with the fast conversation but did not want to display my less-than-perfect Russian to the former president. Nevertheless, he received me kindly. One exchange has always stuck with me. One of his former staffers from his time in the Kremlin asked him, 'Mikhail Sergeevich, when have the security services—the KGB, FSB, GRU—been more of a threat? Now, or during the Soviet era?'
Gorbachev thought about it for a moment and then said, 'During the Soviet era, at least the Communist Party Central Committee kept them under control. Now, they have no one to answer to but themselves. They are more of a threat now.' He was right."
Read Gottemoeller's full essay in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.