The Accidental Great Man
Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t die a hero. He lived long enough to become the villain.
We have two Russia experts at The Bulwark and I’m not one of them. So I can’t tell you the intricate details of Mikhail Gorbachev’s importance. (For that, check out Cathy Young’s remembrance just published on the homepage.)
I can only tell you what he looked like to a normal, suburban kid in America.
I grew up fearing the Soviets and nuclear war. I’m of the generation formed by WarGames and Rocky IV. But we were also raised with the kind of sentimentalizing, give-peace-a-chance pap that would pop up from time to time. Like this:
I didn’t have strong feelings about Gorbachev early on. When I was in grade school, the world looked like it was in chaos: Reagan, the pope, and Sadat all shot. Planes hijacked once a week. Between the news and my hippy-dippy Quaker teachers, there were days when I thought it would be a miracle if the world lasted long enough for me to make it to high school.1
By the late ’80s, the chaos felt like it was subsiding; the Soviet Union became less scary. This was largely because of Gorbachev. He seemed . . . not evil? There was a summit! Glasnost! Perestroika! The Berlin Wall came down while I was on a school trip and my brain could barely comprehend it. How was it that this man had chosen to just . . . let it happen? He didn’t go out like a dictator, guns blazing.
It was around then that I started to believe that Gorbachev, either by accident or design, had become one of the great statesman in the history of human affairs.
Never before—and never since—has the autocratic leader of a country with the power to destroy the world 20 times over peacefully accepted the loss of power.
Think about it. Really think about it. It’s amazing. History is replete with monsters who slaughtered their own people on the road to inevitable diminution.
Gorbachev not only turned away from violence—he helped clear the way for the fall of his own empire.
Is the story more complicated than that? Of course. There were other forces at work. Other actors involved. Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin, Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, Solzhenitsyn, and the legion of dissidents who suffered under communism yet continued to push back against it. They all played vital parts. So did economics and technology. And don’t forget luck, because we needed a lot of that to unwind MAD without blowing up the planet.
But Gorbachev was the indispensable man. Without him, the Soviet Union probably falls anyway—eventually. But maybe it isn’t a bloodless celebration. Maybe our story ends a lot differently.
I don’t mean to romanticize him: Gorbachev was not a democratic reformer. His attempt to tentatively open the USSR was based on his hope that he could save the Soviet system.
Yet when the system began to teeter, Gorbachev was the guy controlling all of the guns. He refused to use them. And not only did he not try to force the Soviet Union to stay together, once history was on the move, he moved with it.
Maybe you can come up with an example of an autocratic leader who acted as wisely and selflessly. I can’t. And I certainly can’t think of one who was more consequential—whose wisdom saved more lives and contributed more to human flourishing.
Watching Gorbachev’s post-Soviet journey was a little strange from my vantage point. World leaders don’t disappear after they step away from power. They linger in a kind of historical purgatory.2
There was the Pizza Hut commercial, for instance.
A few years ago, Foreign Policy ran a wonderful essay about this cultural nugget:
Gorbachev isn’t actually the star of the commercial. He doesn’t even speak. He’s a bystander to the commercial’s central drama, a fight over Gorbachev’s legacy between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour, anti-Gorbachev middle-aged man—possibly father and son. The two exchange charges and defenses of Gorbachev’s record—“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” “Because of him, we have opportunity!” “Complete chaos!” “Hope!”—before an older woman settles the argument: “Because of him, we have many things … like Pizza Hut!”
In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful short film and a very weird advertisement: Who would have thought that a bunch of Muscovites bickering about the end of communism would be a natural pitch for pizza?
For the people who created the ad—the executives, the agents, the creatives—it was a professional landmark. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him.
What happened is this: Gorbachev had been defeated by Yeltsin in the new, democratic Russia. He wanted to remain part of political life. He was broke:
Gorbachev was determined to stay in Russia and fight for reform, not to take up a life of well-compensated exile abroad. To do that, he would need money to fund his center, his staff, and his activities—urgently. As Gorbachev later told France 24 when asked about the ad, “I needed to finish the building. The workers started to leave—I needed to pay them.”
To keep his vision going—and to stay relevant in a world moving beyond him—he would need a lot of money. More, even, than he could make by giving lectures. More than anyone in Russia could, or wanted to, give him.
Enter Pizza Hut:
The American firm had broken into the Soviet Union just before it died, thanks in part to Gorbachev’s policies of openness. That’s one reason why the commercial could exist in the first place: It was filmed on location in a Moscow Pizza Hut near Red Square, which had opened in 1990 as part of a Soviet-era deal with the chain’s then-parent company, PepsiCo. That arrangement, which had been hailed as the “deal of the century,” flopped when the Soviet Union collapsed, killing both the Russian economy and the restaurant’s supply chain. (Overnight, Lithuanian mozzarella became an expensive import from a foreign country.)
Anyway, the story of how Gorbachev eventually agreed to do the commercial is charming:
Gorbachev finally assented—with conditions. First, he would have final approval over the script. That was acceptable. Second, he would not eat pizza on film. That disappointed Pizza Hut. “We always wanted the hero of the ad to eat the pizza,” Helbing said.
Gorbachev held firm. “‘As the ex-leader, I just would not,’” Helbing recalled Gorbachev saying.
O’Neill Bistrian suggested a compromise: A family member would appear in the spot instead. Gorbachev’s granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya ended up eating the slice. Pizza Hut accepted.
The exteriors for the ad were shot in Red Square. When Gorbachev arrived on set, there was the following exchange with the director, which is also charming:
Shaine greeted Gorbachev by saying, “Well, this is a big production we’re involved in.” “I know,” Gorbachev replied through his interpreter. “I’ve been to many big productions in this place.”
I submit to you that no man has ever been subjected to a greater historical whiplash: From presiding over the May 1 parade as supreme leader, to star of a TV commercial. In the same place. The two events separated in time by only 13 years.
And yet, Gorbachev just went with it.
How could you not love the guy?
Here is something that is not charming: Gorbachev was always admired much more by people like me—Westerners—than he was by his countrymen. One final coda from that Foreign Policy piece:
In a 2018 poll by the respected Levada Center (another byproduct of Gorbachev’s reforms), 66 percent of Russians responded that they regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, of course, does Gorbachev. His ambition was to perfect the country, not to end it.
Yet Russians seem to blame him for the catastrophe. A 2017 Levada poll found that only 1 percent of Russians expressed admiration for Gorbachev, 30 percent professed to dislike him, and 13 percent said their overall attitude was one of disgust or hatred. (Yeltsin, who died in 2007, received almost identical ratings.) As a leader, Russians rank Gorbachev well below Joseph Stalin.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to process this fact. How could Russians not revere the man who climbed down from total power over them and then willingly went away? FFS, Gorbachev was one of only three Soviet leaders to leave office alive. For all I know, he was the first Russian leader to walk out on his own two feet maybe . . . ever?3
I’m not sure what the lessons are here.
If you are an optimist, you say that Gorbachev showed how much leverage a wise leader can exercise over events for the cause of good.
If you are a pessimist, you say that Gorbachev showed how little profit there is for a leader to serve the cause of good.
Or maybe Gorbachev is the purest modern example of Harvey Dent’s mantra.
I don’t know how history will regard Gorbachev—as a tragic or heroic figure.
And as I said: His story is complex. No one is ever pure. He found himself presiding over the end of the Soviet Union by accident.
But to my untrained eye, the man always looked like a hero.
One last thing: This is the photo Axios used this morning:
All three of these men are now dead. The buildings behind them—at the time, the second largest in the world—are also gone.
You rarely see an era end so completely.
3. After Afghanistan
We’ve written a lot about what’s happened in Afghanistan, including Will Selber’s crushing account. This piece from Task and Purpose focuses on what has happened to soldiers as they watch the country implode:
Sgt. Ben Johnson was standing outside the main terminal of the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul when the two young Afghan women approached. He immediately noticed how beautiful they were, and in near-perfect English, they asked him to let them through.
It was days into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, and Johnson — a soldier who deployed with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and is being identified by a pseudonym by Task & Purpose at his request — was tasked with moving concertina wire for military vehicles driving into the airport. The women, who he estimated to be somewhere between 17 and 21 years old, were just two of thousands with the same dire request: Please, save us. He explained to the women that he couldn’t let them in. If he did, he’d have to let everyone else through, too. He told them to go to the South Gate. If they had a chance of getting in anywhere, it was there.
“They were like, ‘They won’t let us go back that way. They’ll kill us,” Johnson recalled them saying of the Taliban, who were standing just feet away.
“I didn’t want the Taliban to do anything to them, but then they also couldn’t get through my gate,” he said. “So I finally get them out and I’m yelling at the Taliban, like take these girls out of here. And they go behind the wall and kill them.” . . .
When the two women were killed, Johnson recalled that his platoon sergeant — who he called the best leader he’s served under in the military — told him it would be okay to go sit down for a moment.
“I didn’t want to,” Johnson said. “Because then I knew I would have time to process and register what just happened. I was like no, I’m going to stay busy. I can deal with emotions and thoughts when this is all over with.”
That mindset was common among other service members deployed to HKIA last August. While they were working to make sense of the chaos, those who spoke to Task & Purpose described an awareness that they simply did not have time to think about what they were seeing and witnessing. They would process it all later. . . .
This story is based on official documents, remarks from senior leaders, and hours of interviews with 15 soldiers, airmen, and Marines who were directly involved in the evacuation of tens of thousands of people during the Afghanistan withdrawal mission. Many of them spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly, without fear of reprisal or being ostracized for sharing details about their mental health. While their experiences differed based on where they were and what they were doing during those two weeks, there were common threads throughout their stories: They felt the military wanted to move on as quickly and quietly as possible from the withdrawal. Many said their commands brushed the trauma they brought home with them under the rug and were slow-rolling awards and recognition for the mission, for reasons they didn’t understand.
They also described a sort of emotional tug-of-war: they’re proud of having helped the people they could but angry over the lack of accountability for a mission that placed them in such an impossible situation. And as the rest of the world has seemingly moved on, and the Afghanistan withdrawal is relegated to once-a-year news specials, many of those who witnessed the chaos first-hand are still finding their way back.
Read the whole thing. Don’t look away.
I say that the teachers at my Quaker elementary school were hippy dippy, and they mostly were. But I loved them. Hands down the best part of my educational upbringing. Worth more to me than high school and college put together.
Here is a story about Gorbachev going to dinner at an On the Border in College Station, Texas, with H.W. Bush. Imagine showing up to watch a baseball game with tableside guac and chips and see the two guys who engineered the conclusion of the Cold War at the next table.
Malenkov and Khrushchev were pushed out at the point of a gun. The tsars did not “leave” office; a week after Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, he was under arrest and destined for death.