In 2007 Mikhail Gorbachev, former and final leader of the Soviet Union, filmed an advertising campaign with Louis Vuitton. The final product, with Gorbachev sitting with a Louis Vuitton bag in a car driving past the Berlin Wall, was strange and sad: the former Communist leader with a luxury bag driving past a place that no longer existed, in part because of him, away from a history that he’d helped usher more peacefully into the present and towards a future that wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.
Gorbachev died on Tuesday (30 August) in Moscow at the age of 91, following what the Russian press described as a long illness. He died celebrated, loathed and pitied, all at once.
Gorbachev, who was born to a peasant family, did not grow up a radical, instead rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. After becoming leader of the party in 1985 aged 54, following a series of old hardliners, he proceeded with a policy of military deescalation, thawing the Cold War by signing an arms control agreement with the United States and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He also allowed for reforms within the country, releasing the prominent dissident Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, and lifting media restrictions. Gorbachev ushered in glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or reform. He allowed multi-party elections in Soviet cities. He fought against corruption in the party in which he’d done so well.
Openness and reform, however, cannot be controlled from the top down. Throughout the Eastern Bloc, nations clamored for, and won, an end to Soviet control; Germans demanded, and got, reunification (tearing down the Berlin Wall by which Gorbachev passed in the Louis Vuitton ad); and in the Soviet Union, republics – notably the Baltic states – fought for, and won, independence.
But people were suffering. Economic reforms were insufficient, and the Soviet Union’s economic system was failing to provide popular prosperity. And now people were able to protest, and to use the rights Gorbachev had conceded to push back against him and his system. Outside of Russia, Soviet people clamoured for independence; within Russia, hardliners challenged Gorbachev’s authority. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary in August 1991 and then, in December, as president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was dissolved that month.
Gorbachev remained popular in the West – it was largely thanks to him that the Cold War ended as peacefully as it did – but not in Russia. What does a country do with a man who changed it forever? He acknowledged that things could not remain as they were, and so he ended what they had been. There is something heroic in that to many, but not to people who didn’t want things to change, or at least to change as they did, with the loss of empire and the economic chaos of Russia in the 1990s.
His successor, Boris Yeltsin, said in 1991: “He thought to unite the impossible: communism with the market, public property with private property, political pluralism with the Communist Party. These are incompatible couples, but he insisted on them, and therein lay his fundamental strategic mistake.”
But Gorbachev knew of one other incompatibility: that of the past and the future.
It is both tragic and ironic that he died as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who called the breakup of the Soviet Union the great geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, wages war in Ukraine to bring it back into Moscow’s orbit, in the process pushing the Ukrainian people farther away. Putin, by his own admission, admires the tsars of Russia’s past. Putin wants to restore Russia to imperial greatness, to turn back the clock, to make it such that things now are as they once were.
Gorbachev did not set out to reform the Soviet Union out of existence. For all his faults, though, he knew that there is no going back. The 1980s could not be the 1970s under Leonid Brezhnev, which could not be the 1950s under Joseph Stalin. You can pack your Louis Vuitton bag and drive by the Berlin Wall, but you cannot truly resurrect it. And why would you want to try?
[See also: Gorbachev’s magnificent failure]