Wikimedia Commons Gorbachev with Erich Honecker in East Germany.

Gorbachev: Triumph and Failure

In just over five years, Mikhail Gorbachev transformed the world. He turned his own country upside down. He woke a sleeping giant, the people of the Soviet Union, and gave them freedoms they had never dreamed of. He also gave them back their own horrific history, which his predecessors had hidden and distorted for sixty years. He tossed away the Soviet empire in eastern Europe with no more than a fare-thee-well. He ended the Cold War that had dominated world politics and consumed the wealth of nations for nearly half a century. Then he discovered that he had started a revolution he could not control-a discovery that led to chaos and tragedy. These are the most astounding historical developments that any of us are likely to experience.

Many of these changes were the fruit of Gorbachev's personal endeavors. Others were more logical than they may have seemed as they were happening. Gorbachev was often working with the forces of history, not against them. The West has not always grasped the uncertain nature of Soviet history. It tended to see a monolithic, totalitarian power, hell-bent on world domination; for many years, it also saw a Soviet Union that seemed to be advancing that goal relentlessly. Those were flawed images. One of the most important reasons why Gorbachev was possible was that the Soviet system never worked as well as advertised. By the time he was a candidate for national leadership, it was stumbling badly. His prescriptions for radical change were acceptable to many of his countrymen because they understood their country had fallen into a disastrous state.

Ultimately Gorbachev may enjoy the historical status of a transitional leader-one who bridged two eras by keeping a foot in both. It is clear that Gorbachev's ability to maintain a sort of split personality as both Party man and revolutionary was what enabled him to shatter the Stalinist system. If there had not been two Gorbachevs, there would have been no Gorbachev of the kind

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