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Grading Gorby on a Curve
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Grading Gorby on a Curve

He didn’t ‘liberate’ Eastern Europe, he merely failed in his goal to keep the Soviet Union intact.

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite scenes from Stripes is when Bill Murray’s girlfriend complains that he constantly plays Tito Puente albums. Murray responds that, one of these days, “Tito Puente’s gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.’”

The last time I wrote about the Tito Puente effect was upon the death of Gerald Ford, one of the most decent, patriotic, and—contrary to Saturday Night Live—athletic presidents we’ve ever had. But he was also one of the luckiest. Indeed, he was the only president never to be elected to nationwide office. He was appointed vice president because Spiro Agnew was a crook and he became president because Richard Nixon resigned.

Queen Elizabeth had a similar, though not identical, form of luck. She became queen only because her uncle abdicated, making her dad king and putting her in line for the top job.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died yesterday at the age of 91, had yet a different kind of luck. He was a consummate party man—not in the “Hey, let’s get a beer pong game going” sense, but in the apparatchik sense. He worked his way up a bureaucratic political system that did not seek out or reward the best, never mind the most moral, men. The fact that he was more moral than the rulers who came before him is a real mark in his favor, but I struggle to see how it makes him the hero some paint him as.

My friend Jay Nordlinger recounts a conversation he had with Lech Walesa. Walesa, like Gorbachev, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike Gorbachev, he was an enemy of communism. Walesa said that “Gorbachev had the instruments of rape, and he did not use them.”

What he meant is that, unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev was unwilling to unleash the Red Army to crush countries seeking their freedom from the communist empire or to slaughter lots of Russians seeking the same. I’ve long been vexed by how this refusal—certainly laudable given the alternatives—has been framed in the West as an act of liberation. I heard someone this morning on MSNBC say, flatly, that Gorbachev “liberated Eastern Europe.” If you poke around in Lexis Nexis or Google, such claims are all over the place.

The problem with this Tito Puentification is it attributes agency and intent to Gorbachev that he didn’t have. He wanted to keep the Soviet Union intact; he just wanted to modernize it. He was more akin to Deng Xiaoping or China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, than Walesa or Vaclav Havel or Natan Sharansky (whom Gorbachev considered a filthy traitor). The key difference between Gorbachev and his Chinese analogues isn’t that he loved democracy and freedom more, but that he wasn’t as capable as them.

Saying that Gorbachev liberated Eastern Europe is like saying an incompetent warden liberated his prisoners when he failed in his effort to spruce up the prison. We can acknowledge that the warden’s efforts were laudable given the context and we can even credit his refusal to murder the escapees in an effort to cover up his mess. But refusing to commit mass murder deserves an A+ only when the rest of the classroom is full of mass murderers. As Walesa said to Nordlinger, “Every male has the instrument of rape. Should we all be awarded Nobel prizes for not raping?”

In fairness, I’m not sure anyone could have accomplished what Gorbachev set out to do, because the Soviet Union was so politically calcified, its economic system so dysfunctional, and its imperial dominion so illegitimate that mere reform from within and above wasn’t possible. We should be glad for Gorbachev’s inadequacy to the task he set for himself, even taking into account the sorry state of Russia today.  

In what may be one of George Will’s best columns—a very competitive field—he writes:

Gorbachev’s lasting legacy might be in the lessons that China’s durable tyranny has chosen to learn from his and the Soviet Union’s downfall. Political scientist Graham Allison observes that “when Xi Jinping has nightmares, the apparition he sees is Mikhail Gorbachev.” According to Allison, Xi says Gorbachev’s three ruinous errors were: He relaxed political control of society before reforming the economy, he allowed the Communist Party to become corrupt, and he “nationalized” the Soviet military by allowing commanders to swear allegiance to the nation rather than to the party and its leader.

Several of the obituary segments about Gorbachev I’ve seen on TV begin with a clip of Ronald Reagan declaring “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” This is only fitting, because while the story of the fall of the Soviet Union has many authors over many generations, Reagan deserves prominent billing in the byline. Reagan wanted to see the Soviet Union fall. Mikhail Gorbachev did not. In that zero sum conflict of visions, Reagan’s intentions won and Gorbachev’s were consigned to the ash heap of history. They may have been “partners in peace” in some journalistic shorthand about arms control or whatever. But at a more fundamental level they were adversaries. And the good guy won.

This may seem like a simplistic way of seeing things, but it’s really just a simple way of seeing them. There’s a huge difference between simple and simplistic. The former is an objective observation about an uncomplicated thing—2+2 = 4, fire is hot, you don’t live forever, puppies are cute—the latter is a pejorative opinion about someone else’s opinion. A lot of political argumentation revolves around understanding the distinction between the two. It is simplistic to say that the Soviet Union fell because it was bad. It is simply true that it was bad.

The simple truth.

For some people, this observation is simplistic. It leaves out the history of autocracy in Russia. The exploitation of the serfs. The (allegedly) justified paranoia of Russians about being encircled by enemies. The failure of the market system to take hold and generate a sufficiently large middle class that would protect democratic processes and the rule of law, etc. But these are not excuses for the evil of the Soviet Union. They’re plausible—and only partial—explanations for why it was evil.

For other people, my observation is simplistic because they did not—or do not—want my observation to be true. The idea of the Soviet Union was very seductive for a lot of people. I cannot count how many arguments I had in my youth with people who yada yada’d the wrongness of what the Soviet Union actually did in order to make the argument about the rightness of what it was (allegedly) trying to do. They’d point to what the Soviet constitution promised, but ignore what the Soviet Union failed to deliver. They’d note—correctly—that the United States has flaws, as if our failures to live up to our ideals were somehow a justification for the Soviets’ success at living down to theirs.

It’s no coincidence that “whataboutism” was essentially invented by the Soviet Union and its defenders.  

My problem with whataboutism is that it’s virtually never a substantive retort. It’s an effort to paint simple truths as simplistic distortions. To take an example from today, lots of people respond to eminently credible charges that Donald Trump mishandled classified information by saying, “What about Hillary Clinton?”

Well, what about her? If what she did with her server and emails was bad—and it was—that doesn’t make what Trump allegedly did good. If you were outraged by her mishandling of classified documents, saying Trump did the same thing should be an indictment of Trump, not an exoneration.

In the United States, terrible things were done to African Americans and Native Americans. We can argue about the scope of those misdeeds if you like, but I’m at a loss as to how any honest accounting of our failures makes Stalin’s slaughter of millions any less evil. If you believe that America hasn’t lived up to its democratic ideals, that’s a point worthy of debate. But failing to live up to democratic ideals is simply a different thing than rejecting democracy on principle.

What made the Soviet Union seductive to so many people in the West? It’s a complicated question, but I think the most indispensable part of the answer was simply power worship. The idea that the state could create the kind of society certain people wanted through sheer force of will was simply too good to check (you can see a slice of this mindset in the fetishization of Hungary on the right today). That’s the idealistic form of the seduction. The more sinister form derived from the fact that the defenders of the statist ideal (whether it went by the various brand names of Soviet, Fascist, Nazi, Bolshevik, etc.) believed that they would be the ones empowered by such a system.

It reminds me of the fad for reincarnation in the ‘70s and ‘80s. You never heard the proselytizers of reincarnation say that in a previous life they were a miserable serf or a brutalized slave or a mule-headed day laborer. They were always former princesses or kings or mighty warriors. Just as a mathematical matter, we couldn’t have all been Napoleon or Joan of Arc.

Likewise, the would-be commissars of a grand new Soviet America never envisioned that they might be the ones sent to the gulag or forced to pack fish in a dank and dimly lit factory.

And that, stripped of all of the simplistic justifications for the Soviet Union and its imitators, is why it was evil. It was a system designed not for the betterment of the people, but for the security of the powerful. Dissent, even on the assembly line, was a crime. Individual conscience and truth-telling was the enemy of the “greater good” and the greater good was defined by what was good for the aristocracy of the Bolsheviks.

Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to make the Soviet Union a more efficient, perhaps even a more enlightened, prison state. It is to the world’s benefit he failed and only modestly to his credit that he lacked the will required to achieve his goal.

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Jonah Goldberg

Editor in chief & co-founder of The Dispatch and Remnant podcast host. A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an L.A. Times columnist, CNN commentator, and author of three NYT bestsellers. Goldberg worked at National Review for two decades.