Honour guards stand by a man holding a photograph of the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as his coffin is brought out after a memorial service at the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions on September 3. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the funeral. Photo: AFP
Tom Plate
Tom Plate

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
Last week, the last president of the Soviet Union departed this life at the age of 91, and it must be said now that a true giant is gone. But to recall the pleasure of having met and chatted with Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (who passed away in 1999), as I did in 1992 in Los Angeles, is to be able to believe anew, that Russia is anything but a maddening tangle of Vladimir Putins and Joseph Stalins.

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.

Mikhail Gorbachev holds onto his hat and the waist of his wife Raisa, who waves to reporters in spite of driving wind and rain as they board the Ilyushing-62 jetliner at end of a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 13, 1986. Photo: Reuters

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.

Gorbachev taught communist China how to survive

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 once-immense power of the former Soviet bloc seemed to shrink at the very time the West was basking in the glory that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”), explicitly designed to pry open Russia politically, wound up inspiring China to go the other way, and more or less to keep it that way, to this day.
That change agents will often get short-changed goes with the tenuous territory. Quoted in a dispatch by Reuters, Pavel Palazhchenko, who had been Gorbachev’s interpreter for decades, said of his former boss: “He liked to say that history is a fickle lady. I think that he believed and that he expected that the final verdict will be positive for him.”


China expresses condolences over death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

China expresses condolences over death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

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”.

No doubt the invader of Ukraine is quite busy these days with his horrible war, imperilling, rather than contributing towards, world peace. But Putin could not care less about winning a Nobel Peace Prize, as was awarded to Gorbachev in 1990, in what was perhaps the first draft of history’s judgment.

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?

Though a communist to the day he died last week, Gorbachev was trying to lead Russia out of Stalinist darkness; but Putin seems happier to bring back the creepy old days of the KGB and Siberia. His leadership may not be in question but his utilisation of the war option is not what the world needs.

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.

China is not Soviet Russia – that’s why it’s threatening to the US

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