Even those who fail spectacularly can redeem themselves by knowing how and when to lose.
All political careers end in failure, or so the saying goes. But some statesmen fail better than others—some even fail heroically. Mikhail Gorbachev, who died Tuesday of last week, was a master of the art.
If we judge leaders by their ability to assert their will and enact their programs, Gorbachev was a historical catastrophe. In pursuing his reform programs of perestroika and glasnost, his aim was never to dissolve the system beneath him but to save it. A zealous communist, he had at the age of 17 received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, signed by Stalin himself, for winning a local competition to harvest the most grain. As his nation’s leader, he remained wedded to socialist teaching, even as he disowned its bloodier past. Fewer than two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he declared that “to turn away from Lenin would be to hack away the roots of our society and our state, to devastate the hearts and minds of whole generations.”
Gorbachev’s hope was to reform a moribund state and revitalize a dying ideology. On both counts, his failure was total. The Soviet Union and its socialist ideals were left, as Reagan had predicted, on the “ash heap of history.”
Gorbachev’s greatness lay instead in accepting the collapse of his own authority—an act of statesmanship that would leave him without a state. Soviet leaders were not meant to brook dissent, but Gorbachev ultimately bore the indignities of his time in office as the price of liberalization.
His willingness to accept opposition and even defeat led to a number of unprecedented concessions. When he allowed multi-candidate elections in March 1989—the first of their kind in the history of the USSR—party stalwarts in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev were unceremoniously booted out of office. Separatist candidates in the Baltic states stormed to easy majorities. Throughout the year, the dissident Andrei Sakharov excoriated Gorbachev before the Soviet legislature over delays to ending one-party rule. In February 1990, 250,000 Russians gathered before the Kremlin to demand democracy. An unprecedented deluge of open criticism, mass protest and defeat at the ballot box had begun—and Gorbachev let it happen.
Why and how he let it happen is a matter of debate. While he often liberalized by choice—as in his withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe in December 1988—Gorbachev was just as often swept along by events. In the nearly bloodless end to the Cold War, active restraint often rubbed shoulders with impotence. The reforms he had designed to repair the socialist project opened the way for its full-blown rejection.
Yet even when events spiraled out of control, as revolutions blossomed across Eastern Europe, Gorbachev accepted his own powerlessness with a certain equanimity. He declared to the UN in late 1988 that “freedom of choice is a universal principle. There should be no exceptions.” He was—mostly—true to his word. His government’s abortive attempts to crush protest in the Baltics and Caucasus broke with his commitment to peaceful methods and stained his reputation permanently. But the sentiment he expressed in June 1988—that “the policy of force has outlived its time”—was one he largely clung to.
By the bloody standards of Soviet history, this forbearance was striking. The old playbook of violent suppression, as deployed in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, was jettisoned. Gorbachev’s acceptance of the breakdown of his authority was unusual, however, not just by Soviet standards, but by any. The end of empire in Britain and France had led to far bloodier struggles in Kenya, Malaysia, Algeria and Vietnam. The Indochina War, fought by France from 1946 to 1954, left between 400,000 and 800,000 dead. The liberation of Eastern Europe resulted in a fraction of that death toll. This relative absence of violence was not preordained.
How politicians deal with opposition, humiliation and defeat is one of the great tests of office. Now more than ever, those in charge of the world’s leading powers struggle to face it. In China, the leadership of the Communist Party has blundered into a disastrous Covid policy, unable to change course for fear of tarnishing its own image. In the United States, a former president has rejected his own electoral defeat, imperiling American democracy. And in Russia, Putin’s vicious resentment of Ukraine’s independence led to this year’s brutal invasion.
Unlike Putin, Xi and Trump, Gorbachev’s was a model of leadership defined not by achieving one’s goals, but by accepting their rejection. He is a reminder that even those who fail spectacularly can redeem themselves by knowing how and when to lose. It is a shame so few leaders today seem ready to do the same.
Nat Rachman is a contributing editor at Persuasion and recently completed postgraduate studies in History at the University of Cambridge.