The lesson Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy holds for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
- Celebrated in the West for bringing an end to both the Soviet system and the Cold War, Gorbachev was unpopular at home and is seen as a cautionary tale in China
- There is much, however, that the current leaders of both Russia and China can learn from the Nobel Peace Prize winner
So who was the more intelligent Gorbachev – sharp and boisterous Mikhail or queenlike and laser-eyed Raisa Maximovna ? It is hard to say for sure, but you sensed that with her, you wouldn’t have to be the smartest person in the room to seem the smartest person in the room.
Glamour-wise, they were easily the match of any American first couple, though I was too young to have met the Kennedys in the 1960s.
Global political figures who rise to the top can come across as stiff, though some are simply easily bored. Surely Gorbachev was very easily bored; a long career in the Soviet political maze could not have been one big bowl of cherries.
But he had that ever-ready-to-banter glint in his eye, and during our chat he responded with delight to the suggestion that as the leader to end the dreary Soviet system and the Cold War, he might have been as popular a political figure in the United States as anyone. Lowering the prospect of international nuclear war can do wonders for one’s image.
“Da!” he said with emphatic merriment, when it was suggested, semi-jokingly, that if he’d run for office in California, he’d win by a landslide.
But back in Russia, public opinion was then, as now, rather a different tale, and there are valuable lessons to be extracted from his unpopularity at home. No doubt the nation’s plummet from prowess to chaos during his 1985-1991 run as top communist coincided with widespread Russian decompression.
And among the Chinese governing elite, Gorbachevism is trotted out as a synonym for the supposedly inevitable political immolation that comes from prioritising political reform over economic progress.
The current king of the Kremlin, of course, is betting the full house of Russia against that; Putin failed to show even at the great Gorbachev’s funeral, confirmed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, due to his “work schedule”.
Leadership is practically a one-word cliché among quick-to-judge journalists and other commentators these days. More of it is deemed preferable to less. It is thrown into critical discussions of political leaders as if it’s a magic formula for progress. So by that measure, was Adolf Hitler a better leader than Jimmy Carter?
A comparison with the leadership style of John F. Kennedy in this context may seem bizarre. But the late Normal Mailer, one of America’s finest writers for many decades, offered a particularly prescient assessment in an outstanding collection of essays published less than 10 years after the charismatic president’s assassination.
Mailer explains the Kennedy mystique with this insight: Liberal Democrats’ “chronic disease is hero worship … He would be the movie star come to life as President … the nation could no longer use a father; it was Kennedy’s genius to appreciate that we now required a leading man.”
What was true then is even truer now. In these times, it’s hard to be a leading social or political influencer without a positive flow of pictures – an Instagram account, as it were, that stands out in the jumble of pixels. War leaders get inherently dramatic framing but history won’t be so easily dazzled.
Maybe even the Chinese elite will someday downgrade the importance of Gorbachev’s lesson that still looms so large in its mind. It would be globally uplifting to see Chinese President Xi Jinping on an Instagram feed of peace. Men of Beijing: even Gorbachev had his good side.
Loyola Marymount Clinical Professor Tom Plate is the Phi Beta Kappa university’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, Asia Media International founder and Pacific Century Institute vice president