The Economist contends that Mikhail Gorbachev, who died this week at the age of 91, “liberated his people from 70 years of lies and ended the cold war.” Reuters says Gorbachev “brought communism to an end.” Other similar hagiographies of the last Soviet dictator could be found across the media.
Not only didn’t Gorbachev bring communism to an end or intend to “liberate” anyone, if it were up to him The Warsaw Pact would still exist, tens of millions of Eastern and Central Europeans would still be under the grip of Moscow, and hundreds of millions more would still be living under communism. This isn’t counterhistorical speculation. Decades after the Iron Curtain came down, Gorbachev was still openly lamenting the fall of the USSR, one of the most nefarious empires man has ever known:
The Soviet Union offered lots of prospects to those who lived there, and it could have had a future if it had modernized and adapted to new challenges. Yes, I regret [its collapse] very much.”
In other words, Gorbachev didn’t believe real communism had been tried yet.
Perhaps the best one could say about the man was that he led from behind. Indeed, the world was blessed that such a weak and feckless man, forced to his knees by the failures of a socialist economy and the bravery of others, resisted the impulse to deploy force to keep long-occupied European nations in the Soviet fold as had his predecessors. (The star of a cute Pizza Hut commercial in the 1990s, did send troops to crack down on Lithuania — the first republic within the Soviet Union itself to declare independence — murdering 14 peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Vilnius and wounding hundreds more.) Of course, not being Stalin is perhaps the lowest moral bar that exists in the universe. Gorbachev passed it, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for “the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations.”
The Western sanctification of Gorbachev was a function of a media abhorring the notion of giving Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II any credit for creating the economic, political, moral, or military conditions that forced Gorbachev to move forward with glasnost and perestroika. (Read Margot Cleveland’s excellent piece on the topic.) Even Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, pushed for quicker democratizing and reforms of the Soviet political system and, in the end, impelled the last strongman to abdicate his power and call it a day.
But more than any of those men and women, it was Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth who deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize and whose actions in 1989 hastened the end of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall.
In March of 1989, Nemeth informed Gorbachev — not the other way around — that the small nation was going to “remove completely the electronic and technological protection from the Western and Southern borders of Hungary.” A few months later, East German tourists began testing the Hungarian border and succeeded in escaping to the West. By August of 1989, the Hungarians had opened the Austria frontier, allowing 13,000 East Germans join the West. Tens of thousands would follow.
On September 11, 1989, the Associated Press reported that, “thousands of East Germans, crying, laughing and shouting with happiness, poured into Austria from Hungary early today en route to freedom in West Germany…” (I was lucky enough to be in both Austria and Hungary that summer, watching hundreds of rickety Trabants streaming west.) This was the largest breach of the Iron Curtain since Soviets had crushed Hungarian hopes for freedom in 1956. In 11 weeks, the Berlin Wall would fall.
And, by his own admission, none of it would have happened if Gorbachev had his way.