Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who broke Soviet Union


Mikhail Gorbachev, who recently demised at the age of 91 will possibly be remembered by those patriotic Russians for his disastrous role, which had resulted in collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the defenders of Gorbachev would say, Soviet Union had collapsed because the “end of the USSR was inevitable”. But in my opinion, Soviet Union’s collapse was not inevitable. Instead, it was the result of Gorbachev’s disastrous policies.

Historians still intensely debate the Soviet collapse. Some point to the long-term structural problems in the USSR from a lack of popular legitimacy of the Soviet rule and the simmering ethnic tensions, to the chronic inability of the Soviet planned economy to satisfy growing consumer demands and keep up the growth with the west.

But equally when Gorbachev came to power there still was a reasonably robust system in place which kept dissent at bay and maintained military parity with the west. In March 1985, when the general secretary came to power, there was nothing to suggest the collapse of the whole system was inevitable in six years.

Some people say, Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet system, not destroy it. He started his economic reforms by investing huge amounts in heavy industry alongside partial liberalization of small trade, while controversially cracking down on alcohol consumption. But all of these, apart from the hugely unpopular anti-drinking campaign, were half measures. All of them only made things worse.

Gorbachev’s economic reforms undermined the command economy discipline. The retention of price controls by the state and ban on private property meant what was left of the old state system functioned worse than before – while the new market one couldn’t take off either. The origins of vast illicit wealth, legalized under Boris Yeltsin, was thanks to perestroika, his restructuring of the economic system.

Running into severe economic difficulties, which were exacerbated by collapsing oil prices, Gorbachev decided to switch his focus on to political reform. The aim was to give the Soviet system more legitimacy through partial democratization. Gorbachev always thought that his reforms faced danger from the conservatives within the Soviet apparatus. Yet, it was the democrats, led by Yelstin, who destroyed him.

Gorbachev ended up falling between two stools. His reforms were too much for the conservatives, but too little for the democrats. He created the office of president to preserve his power as the Communist Party’s authority was increasingly undermined through public debates, revelations about the Soviet past and the growth of national movements in ethnic republics. But he never dared to face a popular election and, as a result, always lacked popular legitimacy, which was ironic as this was the aim of his political reforms.

Mikhail Gorbachev is still a puzzle for me – not least of all because of the contrast between the astuteness with which he climbed to the top, and his utter naivety when he got there about the Soviet system as a whole and power in international relations. Yet, Gorbachev was the individual who brought down the USSR and without whom the cold war would not have ended.

The best summing up of Gorbachev’s legacy came from one his closest aides: Gorbachev was good as messiah but lost as a politician.


  1. Under the two superpowers USSR and USA, the world was relatively calm and peaceful because there existed a balance of power. Gorbachev destroyed the powerful Soviet Union (USSR) into pieces. Gorbachev could bring the whole world under one democratic world government, but he didn’t or failed to do that. The sacrifice of the strong USSR became in vain due to inaction of Gorbachev.


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