Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was easily one of the most impactful rulers, even beyond his country, that the world ever produced. With a mixture of stout diplomacy and resolute power play, Gorbachez brought a drastic and enduring change to global politics in a manner that simultaneously provoked both commendation and condemnation. His passing on at the Central Clinical Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow on August 30, 2022, after a prolonged illness, marks the end of an era.
Born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia’s Stavropol region, 15 years after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party at about age of 21, while studying law at Moscow State University in 1952. He would assume leadership of the global superpower in a bipolar world order in March 1985. This was after the short-lived leadership of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko who variously led the USSR after the death of Leonid Brezhnev as the General Secretaries of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR. It was at a time of détente in the country’s relationship with the West.
Gorbachev inherited a weak Soviet economy and a Stalinist bureaucratic web that weakened innovation and creativity as well as democratic impulses in the country. With power in his hands, he sought to reform the socialist system with the twin policy of Glasnost and Perestroika, i.e., openness and restructuring ostensibly to re-energise the system. Indeed, as Nikolai Ryzhkov noted in the guidelines for economic and social development of the USSR presented to the 27th congress of the CPSU in 1986, the policies were for “quantitative transformation of the productive forces and of society’s social development.”
While his economic policies led to the rebirth of small businesses, cafes, and restaurants, they also precipitated a crisis in the Soviet Union’s economy that unleashed separatist impulses in the republics which sought self-determination. As part of his peace agenda, Gorbachev called for an end to the arms race and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He also ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1989. Overall, his policies led to the collapse of a mighty country that once spanned 11 time zones — from the Berlin Wall and the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait and Central Asia with Self-determination for the Baltic republics, Central and Eastern European under its canopy.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would mark the end of the USSR which wound up in December 1991 despite a coup attempt to revise the trend earlier in August of that year and a last-ditch effort to create the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Economist would provide what appears a Nunc Dimittis for his policies thus: “The perestroika (“restructuring” or reformation”) which he started then never reached the destination he wanted, democratic, humane socialism—perhaps because that destination was utopia, rather than a real place. To the elite of modern Russia, he seems an oddity if not a traitor: a fool who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and made no money out of it.”
Nevertheless, his policies endeared him to the West, and were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize for his global peace efforts. The West celebrated the end of the USSR and regarded the whole complex as the triumph of Western capitalism over communism and the defeat of Moscow in the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama, one of those Issa Shivji regarded as State Department scholars in the United States, would author “The End of History” where he celebrated the triumph of idealism over a materialist world outlook.
However, Gorbachev was not so loved at home for the collapse of his country. Indeed polls revealed that Russians hated him for collapsing their country. As one commentator puts it, he incurred “the lasting enmity of millions of Russians bitter about the chaos unleashed by the collapse of the world’s largest country”. Russian President Vladimir Putin once called the collapse of the union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Despite Gorbachev’s affirmation of his actions to the extent that he took his decisions as a matter of principle over which he “campaigned for the independence of peoples and for the sovereignty of the republics…But at the same time, I campaigned for the preservation of a single state on the territory of the whole country. But events have gone in another direction.” He would bemoan the fate that befell his country in his autobiography when he noted, “What is Russia without the Soviet Union?”
Gorbachev’s mortal exit offers a window to reminisce over USSR-Africa relations. Africa will not forget in a hurry, the massive military and economic support the country gave to many African countries that were in the throes of Western imperialism. Perhaps, without the support of the USSR, it is most likely that the physical occupation of Africa by forces of imperialism would have been prolonged, even though today the continent grinds under various forms of neocolonial manifestations.
Indeed, while bipolarity lasted, it gave African countries an autonomous space to navigate the international order and pursue their economic and political objectives. The continent can only hope that the current “constructive destruction” of the “unipolar moment” by the Russia federation would usher in a multipolar world order for the continent to exert once again its developmental aspiration and autonomy.