Gorbachev, the Tragic Hero of Federalism

By Ira Straus

Gorbachev applied incredible skill in guiding change peacefully out of a totalitarian system into a democratizing one. He had to navigate between harsh opposite factions: those who didn’t trust anything short of abandonment of the system all at once, and those who wanted to maintain repression with minimal change lest the system fall apart.

In Hegel’s language, he had to step down from positions of absolute master-slave relations, and four such positions at that: personal dictatorship, party dictatorship, command economy, and empire. He used a kind of Hegelian dialectical method for guiding transformation through a series of many changes, mediations, and shifts in perspective. But he also refuted Hegel, by showing that it was possible to do this peacefully and rather quickly, without the slaves slaying the master. 

But his noble method took a personal toll on him. After enough iterations of his process and shifts from side to side and from one reform to another, not many people on either side, hardliner or democrat, trusted him. He opened the door to public criticism of himself, and the people jumped on the chance, happy to breathe freely for the first time. His popularity in the opinion polls — real polls started getting taken and published thanks to him — plummeted. Even as he moved the country faster and faster, from the first openings of glasnost into real elections, his chances of winning a free election were dissipating. 

Delaying central elections and the failure of federal reform

This fed into his greatest single mistake: that of delaying free multiparty elections for the central Union government, leaving it in a state of rapid decay. He said this was because the hardliner power ministries put a gun to his head and forbade it. The Democrats said it was because he knew he’d lose any such election. It was occasionally let out from the Center that he had to stay in power for the time being, since only he was capable of guiding the process from stage to stage without breakdown. 

Probably all these explanations were part of his motivation. But when he did finally agree to new, free central elections, it was too late; the country split apart before the elections could be held. 

For, in the meanwhile, the member Republics had held multiparty elections already in 1990, gaining governments with a dramatic new infusion of legitimacy. The Union state, by contrast, remained basically Party-chosen. It suffered a severe decline in its legitimacy vis-a-vis the Republics. 

The Union-wide Congress of People’s Deputies had, to be sure, been elected not too much earlier in elections that were for the first time pretty free, but were not fair; reserve seats had ensured the Communist Party a majority. It was a tremendous step forward for glasnost, creating a parliamentary faction headed by Sakharov that could speak freely, with immunity, and get cited in the media freely, without censorship. A new public opinion emerged, more authentic and mature, no longer confined to rumors and whispers and an atmosphere of conspiracy. 

But once the Republic governments were, in the next iteration of the process, more freely elected in this emerging public mood, it exposed all the more glaringly the need for a truly elected Union parliament that could act on its views. They were not scheduled – not for a long time. The authorities said they should stick to the schedule, not fall into the Revolutionary trap of cashiering institutions and holding new elections when the mood shifted. That conservative-sounding wisdom proved a cause of actual revolutionary collapse.

The Republics proceeded to demand and claim sovereignty, arguing their laws were now legitimate and those of the unelected Center not. This “war of laws” gravely weakened the Center. 

In these difficult conditions, Gorbachev was resourceful in trying to save the Union. He got a referendum on whether to have a new, free, democratic Union. It won with a 76% supermajority, although its wording was vague, it was criticized for promising all things to all sides of the question and not making clear what it would mean in practice, and it was boycotted in six Republics that wanted independence. 

He pressed on for a new federal Union treaty with considerable confederal decentralization. The contradictions were significant here, but not unusual in federalism: all confederations have some elements of federation and vice versa. Federalism always denies absolute, consistent sovereignty, yet uses the term for both levels of government. This fills it with apparent contradictions and sometimes real ones. It leads to perpetual struggle and perpetual negotiation, seeing this as less onerous than either consistent absolute would be; it’s the price of wanting both to be together and be separate. But people approaching the matter as passionate purists for the Union or for the Republics will think of the admixture as a scandal, unviable, and a betrayal of their side. And so some hardliners denounced it as a sell-out of the Union, while some Republics called it a betrayal of their sovereignty, demanding a weaker, more consistently confederal union instead. Reality was very different from this rhetoric, as so often happens in debates over federalism. (Years later, Shushkevich of Belarus came to Washington and was still denouncing Gorbachev as a typical “Communist”, scheming and cheating with his drafts, because he was promising a confederation but was instead trying to slip a federation through because there was still something of a federal state with Union sovereignty in it. He proudly recalled how he himself stood up for full Belarusian sovereignty and freedom and the eventual CIS. The sovereign Belarus had meanwhile replaced him with Lukashenka and become a full-fledged dictatorship again; Russia was still semi-democratic.) Nevertheless the treaty was signed by eight Republics. Gorbachev was ready to sign as well in August 1991 — only to be pre-empted by the August coup of the hardliners, who considered the treaty just a step down the road to collapse of the Union. The coup proved in fact the decisive blow that brought on the collapse of the Union state.

Gorbachev had himself elevated the power of the hardliners not too many months earlier, shifting the balance toward their side and siding with them in conducting repressions against the Baltic states, in a kind of pre-coup; Yakovlev and Shevardnadze left him, warning that a dictatorship was being prepared. Gorbachev relaxed the repressions in the spring and moved again toward reform and toward such Union treaty as could still be salvaged. A price was paid for the back and forth, but he perhaps believed that it was necessary given the pressures he was facing and the need to maneuver between them. The price went up astronomically when the hardliners killed the Union treaty with their August coup attempt. In the process, they removed themselves from the rank of actors within the Gorbachev system. When the coup failed, the remaining political spectrum consisted entirely of reformers. 

The spectrum now ranged from moderate to radical within reform. Gorbachev was no longer in its center, but on its moderate fringe. He got his golden opportunity to carry through his reforms without a crippling resistance, but his political position became untenable: most reformers wanted to go farther and faster, and distrusted him. 

He finally agreed to new elections for the Center, at a deliberate pace; he did not try calling the snap elections that might have salvaged some part of the power of the Union Center. The three core Republics declared a new “commonwealth of independent states”, dissolving the former Union and with it the central government, long before the new elections were slated to be held. 

It was the end. Gorbachev chose to resign and leave peacefully. He figured, probably correctly, that repression was not a viable option; it might have found enough support to start a civil war, but not enough to win it, much less win it quickly or without massive bloodshed. And it would make permanent enemies for Russia all around it — something one might think no Russian nationalist would want, yet some did.

He spared Russia that outcome — the Milosevic outcome. But his foreswearing of repression enabled many nationalists to fantasize ever thereafter about the repression, thinking or daydreaming that it could easily have been carried out, and that their country was quite unnecessarily destroyed by a stab in the back by Gorbachev and the traitor-democrats. It was a myth that replicated in detail the stab in the back myth of the Nazis in Weimar Germany. 

Decades later, in a tragic way to have to come the end of his life, Gorbachev saw the consequences of this myth playing themselves out. He witnessed Putin moving Russia back into the Milosevic outcome, attached not only to the doubtful fantasy that the empire could have been saved, but to the even more farfetched fantasy that it could be restored. 

The fate of his other geographical goal: a “Common Home” for the “Greater Europe”

We have seen that Gorbachev proved unable to accomplish his two positive goals that concerned geographic space: preserving the unity of the inner empire, reformed into a federation that would be politically self-sustainable; and creating a Common European Home for the greater Europe of the Helsinki area, understood as what was needed to consolidate an end to the Cold War and establish an enduring peace for the leading sector of the world. It is fair to say that he did not have clear ideas on how to achieve either goal; he could only use the method of putting forth the goal as an attractive slogan, building support for it, and navigating the process of discussing it and negotiating it. That proved insufficient. Perhaps, given indefinitely lengthy time, it would have worked to develop the clarity of goal and way to the goal along the way itself. But the time was not given; could not be given.

It would have required a higher order of genius to come up in advance with clear and adequate ideas on these goals: there was simply no serious public and scholarly discussion available about them for him to build on, outside of the small discussion spaces of the international federalist culture. Even with clear ideas, it would have required not only Gorbachev’s statesmanship and motivation to implement them, but help from all sides and parties, at home and abroad; something that was in fact lacking on nearly all sides. And he would have needed a huge load of luck. 

He had the virtus. But not the fortuna

It is an almost transcendent fact that, despite this, he succeeded in ending the Cold War, in a way that eliminated great power conflict for more than two decades. That is no small achievement in the checkered history of international relations. 

And he succeeded in peacefully dissolving the empire into freely associated states. That too was a great, and rare, historical achievement.

His still greater goals, if achieved, would have been truly spectacular on the scale of history. Turning an empire into a federation is so good an idea, and so hard! So many attempts have been made, only to fail. 

Even in the British Empire, where the settler colonies were hardly seriously oppressed, it proved impossible to turn Empire into Federation. Franklin tried it in 1754, getting the Albany Congress of the colonies to adopt the proposal, to no avail; and proposed another form of it in 1765. Instead the empire split up by way of civil war in 1776. Britain’s Imperial Federation movement had a similar lack of success in its decades of attempts starting in the 1870s, but did help set up the Commonwealth into which the empire was able to dissolve peacefully. 

The attempts in Yugoslavia at reforming the federation not only failed but issued in civil war instead of a peaceful break-up. In Yugoslavia as in the Soviet Union, the Center refused to face new elections while the Republics held theirs, undermining the legitimacy of the Center. The hard nationalist policy of Serbia under Milosevic finished it off. 

In Czechoslovakia, the Center submitted wisely to new democratic elections in good time. Still the Union broke up anyway! But it had the good fortune of a prospect, soon realized, of coming back together economically and militarily under the umbrellas of the EU and NATO. 

Could such a prospect have helped with the Soviet case? It could have greatly helped it. But it was not available. 

The Soviet space was far too big for the EU. The NATO space could have fit it, but Russians were not enabled to believe in such a prospect. 

Why not? NATO did say at times that Russia was not excluded from joining, but in an unconvincing manner. NATO did not make the effort — it would have required a non-trivial effort, but not unreasonably difficult given the size of the stakes — to find a way to make Russian membership work without destroying NATO in the process; and Russians were not making the effort to figure it out for the West. 

From 1991 to 2002 Russians at the highest level proposed joining NATO, as the solution to the problem of the break-up. For a time Yeltsin was able to establish this as the strategic goal of the democratic regime. Gorbachev himself had raised the idea with James Baker in 1990; Baker in 2001 published an article advocating it, and regretting that he had pooh-poohed it at the time. It was a rare admission of a mistake from a diplomat of his skill and vision. Far worse was the repeated Western failure during the Yeltsin years. 

The failure to follow through on Russia’s aspiration for joining NATO was arguably the one true betrayal of Russia by NATO. It contrasts with the allegation that NATO betrayed a promise to Gorbachev to not expand at all, an allegation for which evidence is lacking, even though it is frequently repeated, often with footnotes and citations that are said — mistakenly, but perhaps somehow sincerely believed — to show it as historical fact. Gorbachev himself clearly denied the allegation as a matter of historical fact, even while vaguely affirming the spirit of it as a political complaint against NATO expansion. And in spirit, NATO’s expansion elsewhere did indeed, in the absence of a serious path for Russian entry, have the consequence of re-alienating Russia. It was the inevitable result of the failure to think through and provide a path for Russian entry: NATO was bound to endure, survive, and expand; the only question was whether it would try to include Russia, or do it against Russia. 

The failure meant that no umbrella was to be thrown over the dissolution of the inner Soviet empire, as had been done for the dissolving Czechoslovakia; and that the greater umbrella for the dissolution of the outer Warsaw Pact empire — Gorbachev’s aspiration to a “Common European Home” as an umbrella to maintain a common security space — would also be lacking, despite the creation of pro forma institutions as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Real security unions are not formed in a day, on paper. NATO was the real security union, formed cumulatively by the labors of many generations in two world wars and a cold war. CSCE was a thin supplement to such real union as existed through other means.

* * *

The miracles he was unable to achieve; the mistakes he made

It would have been a true miracle if Gorbachev had succeeded not only in those spheres where he did succeed, near-miraculously, but in those geographical spheres where so many others had failed. He did not succeed in them. Is it his fault? 

He made mistakes along the way; in that sense, yes, he has fault. But mistakes are inevitable in real political life.

As one who spent years studying federalism, the mistakes perhaps strike me harder than most people. They are worth reviewing.

There was his failure to accept new elections for the Soviet central government in good time. There was the problem that, in his promotion of reform from below, he did not at first let multiple parties form and run for office, but used a variant of the old Soviet method of encouraging Popular Fronts to be set up in each Republic, this time for reform not for repression. They evolved quickly into National Fronts, seeking independence. There was his inattention to federalism until late in the process.

There were serious reasons for these steps, but they proved serious mistakes. 

It is far from clear that the Union could have been salvaged, even had these mistakes all been avoided. The mistakes were indeed avoided in Czechoslovakia; the union failed anyway. The underlying reality is that it is a near impossibility to turn an empire, with its ingrained structures of mutual distrust and resentment between center and periphery, into a federation. It seems so simple to use the instruments of central power to negotiate, noblesse oblige, a transfer of power downwards to a more equal federation; yet it so rarely proves feasible. 

Perhaps if Gorbachev had been free of the other economic and political problems, if he had faced a blank slate, and been able to concentrate on the federal problem from the start, he could have done it? Perhaps. We can never know. There was never a blank slate before him. It was the other problems that stared at him as a crisis from the start, commandeering his attention until it was quite late to get to the Union problem. Ingrained Soviet mentalities persisted. The underlying reality of life is that we have to build our future out of the ingrained structures and mentalities that exist, not the ones we would have needed to do best. 

Marx had taught the Soviets as much: “Men make their own history,” he wrote, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” We cannot help but make mistakes in these conditions. 

There is no life without mistakes. 

Gorbachev chose the path of life for himself and his country. His mistakes were small compared to the scope of the problems he faced and steered his country through. He skilfully avoided the far greater mistakes that were placed temptingly in his path. 

The market economy toward which he guided the country was established under his successors, albeit in ways that he criticized sharply. The criticism was not in all respects fair. The massive corruption of buying off the nomenklatura was begun under his rule; it was carried further under his successors. It badly tainted the outcome, but it kept the transformation peaceful, a not small accomplishment.

The democracy he built was incomplete as long as the Center was not freely elected. It was completed instead by the dissolution of the Center. This sudden “completion” was from the start a tainted democracy in most of the Republics. The cost was paid by Democracy itself.

The democracy grew more sound with time in many of successor states. It disappeared in others, whose provincial elites were far less democratic than those of the former Center. 

The break-up took the greatest toll on democracy in Russia itself, the core Republic. 

The Russian public rejected the Democrats. It blamed them for the break-up of the country. The majority of seats in its legislative elections after 1991 went to extremist parties of Left and Right: Soviet nationalists and Russian nationalists. The regime was later consolidated under Putin, but as a “managed democracy”, using “administrative means” to get electoral outcomes acceptable to the powers that be, and using nationalistic appeals to regain popularity. 

“Managed democracy” became “sovereign democracy” as Putin himself became more nationalistic. He spoke of a “dictatorship of the law”. For a brief time, this seemed to mean reconsolidation of central authority and the uniformity of federal law (too much authority had dissipated to the provinces in face of the ruble crisis of 1998, just as too much had in the “parade of sovereignties” of 1991; and while in both cases central authority quickly recovered in most respects, fears were raised — unfounded fears, it must be said — of a repetition of the Soviet break-up), but soon it came to mean something very different: a dictatorship, plain and simple, hiding behind the guise of the law to conduct its repressions. With time it grew cumulatively more authoritarian. The major free media were squeezed out of existence one after another over a period of many years, leaving only marginalized outlets free, and they were also mostly crushed in 2022. 

The controlled elections were increasingly dishonest in their methods and even in the counting. The political repressions grew more severe. Political opponents were assassinated, with the regime forming a standard habit of passing the killings off as “provocations” committed by its enemies to make the regime look bad. To be sure, this kind of projection of blame was not a new invention; it was an old KGB meme. 

Regime doctrine moved from moderate consolidationism or conservative liberalism to counter-revolutionism, placing it only a step short of fascism on the political science spectrum. New laws, announced upon the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, moved the country close again to totalitarianism. 

It is a sad time for Gorbachev to be passing.

His legacy is again in doubt. For some, his death is like a punctuation point for the collapse of his legacy. But they are mistaken. His achievements are far from all undone. And his promise remains, waiting for people to find their way back to its realization.

Gorbachev was the true Tsar-Liberator. His liberations paralleled but exceeded those of the one known to historians as the “Tsar-Liberator”, Alexander II.

Alexander stepped down from only one of his master positions, not three as did Gorbachev. He successfully liberated the serfs, by the wave of his autocratic wand, not by persuasion and changing the political culture to a new consensus. The liberation ended up incomplete, rather like the liberation of the slaves in America turned out to be after Reconstruction was ended. He held onto his power, while slowly making limited institutional reforms. In 1881 he was assassinated en route to announcing a reform of the judiciary. He was succeeded by a counter-revolutionary, Alexander III, who is admired today by Mr. Putin.

Gorbachev was the greater of the two. He ended a full-fledged totalitarian system of government and society, not just an authoritarian one, and not just one social part of it. He brought to a peaceful close not one but four systems of extraordinarily sharp master-slave relations. 

Gorbachev cannot reasonably be blamed for his successors’ failure – and the world’s failure – to consolidate the achievement. He can instead be remembered for the great things he achieved, and for the still greater possibilities he opened up. Some of the achievements remain; the others can be renewed, even if it requires again great effort and wise leaders. 

The immediate situation of today is defined by Putin, but not the era. His ideas are too weak and unrealistic for that. They are ephemeral. It is Gorbachev whose ideas and legacies persist, with special longevity; for they meet the scope of our time.

Gorbachev has passed. The Gorbachev era remains.

Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies and U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO