Russian folk culture cherishes the figure of the holy fool. Derived from Orthodox Christianity, the holy fool is out of sync with conventional society. The holy fool speaks the truth, though to others it may sound like nonsense. The holy fool stumbles through life, experiencing successes that are failures and failures that are successes. Holy fools can be prophets. Although everyone else is preoccupied with the world as it is, the holy fool can intuit the world as it might be, and perhaps the world as it will be. Wisdom can initially look like folly, and folly can appear at the outset to be wisdom.

It is possible to see Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who died on August 30, at the age of 91, as a holy fool. He was out of sync with the conventional Soviet society into which he was born, in 1931, precisely because he was so sincerely Soviet—and because he never ceased being sincerely Soviet, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He spoke an important truth about international politics, which is that it should show some concern for humanity and not just for national egotism, a truth that took on particular significance in the nuclear age. And his greatest success, the reform of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, turned out to be his greatest failure, when reform led to peaceful revolutions across the Soviet imperium. Gorbachev reformed the Soviet Union out of existence.

But in another sense, Gorbachev was the opposite of a holy fool, for he was anything but a prophet. In the early 1980s, he did intuit the world as it might be. His utopia featured a Soviet Union with a shining Leninism at its core and a Europe peacefully stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok: liberty, fraternity, and equality finally achieved. But he did not intuit the world as it would be once his reforms ran their course. He did not intuit the fall of the Soviet Union. He did not intuit the piecemeal Europe of the 1990s, half in the European Union and half out, half in NATO and half out. He did not intuit the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was no less Soviet than Gorbachev but who had no investment in Soviet idealism. Putin had an appreciation of Soviet power (and of Russian power) that Gorbachev never shared.

Ultimately, the mystery of Gorbachev rests on a distinction between Gorbachev the man and Gorbachev the statesman. They were two very different people.


In his heyday, Gorbachev could be arrogant. He is a case study of the intellectual in power, with the intellectual’s temptation to follow big ideas—all the way to the point of self-immolation. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s decency was exceptional, and not just for the Soviet system, in which crime and state power seamlessly mingled. Because of his decency, he would accept costs that few other politicians would accept. Gorbachev’s arrogance did not stop him from sacrificing for principle.

This decency would itself come to have world-historical implications. Gorbachev was not really a man of peace. At times, including in Lithuania in January 1991, when Soviet soldiers killed 14 peaceful protesters and injured 140 more, he employed state violence to suppress political initiatives of which he did not approve. Gorbachev’s decency, then, lay not in his rejection of violence but in his rejection of mass violence and nihilistic violence. The means of mass violence were at his disposal, but for the most part, he chose not to use them against dissident or breakaway movements in the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. He did not want to let those Soviet republics and satellite states go. But he did let them go—a rare gift in the annals of European history.

Another gift, less obvious and more complicated, was the way in which in Gorbachev gave up his own power. By December of 1991, he had been outdueled by the chair of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. Earlier that year, in August, Gorbachev had been weakened by an attempted coup carried out by Soviet hard-liners, who had put him under house arrest. The incompetence of the plotters doomed the plot. Just months later, Gorbachev was finally forced out, when Yeltsin and his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts started dissolving the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev did not summon the military, call for violence in the streets, or seek out loyalists within the KGB to keep him in power by force. Instead, Gorbachev decided to become the George Washington of post-Soviet Russia. He demonstrated that a peaceful transfer of power was both necessary and possible. Unlike Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev—and unlike Putin, presumably—Gorbachev concluded that it was better not to die in office. It was better for those with power not to hold on to it at all costs.


Gorbachev may have been a decent man. But he was a catastrophically bad statesman. Despite his self-confidence, his intellectual brilliance, and his dignified bearing, Gorbachev had no idea what he was doing. In the name of preserving a form of Leninism that had little purchase on the actual functioning of the Soviet Union, he undertook a series of actions that quickly spun out of control. After granting individuals and groups greater freedom for the sake of saving the Soviet Union, he had to watch as they employed this freedom to undermine the Soviet Union. He did not understand the motivations of the people he ruled. He did not understand their nationalism. He did not understand their cynicism. He did not understand the role that coercion played in keeping the Soviet Union afloat, and he was thus naive about what would happen when that coercion was diminished through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the buzzwords of his tenure.

Gorbachev cannot be blamed for Putin’s terrible wars in Ukraine. Gorbachev may have been uneven in how he spoke out against Putin, whom he did not like, but Gorbachev would not have fought these wars. Gorbachev does bear responsibility, however, for a set of circumstances that served as the precondition for Putin’s wars and for the disastrous state of Russia’s relations with the West. Gorbachev’s inept statesmanship created an immense vacuum in eastern and central Europe. He had no sustainable vision for this strategically crucial region. He was too decent to keep it under Moscow’s thumb and too Soviet to negotiate some other set of arrangements, so he simply got swept away by the ensuing confusion.

Gorbachev had no sustainable vision for the strategically crucial region of eastern and central Europe.

The vacuum Gorbachev left when he was compelled to retire, in 1991, has posed problems for both Russia and the West. Putin has interpreted this vacuum as Russia’s loss, and Putin speaks for many Russians in this regard. That which Russia lost, Putin has argued, it must regain—through military force, if necessary. In 2008 in Georgia and then in 2014 in Ukraine, Putin started the wars of Soviet succession—less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s vacuum has mostly been interpreted in the West as the West’s gain, and the raft of freshly independent countries in 1991 validated that thesis. But if the West had figured out a workable security architecture for Europe in the 1990s, if it had truly figured out the Gorbachev vacuum, there would be no war in Ukraine today. NATO and the EU filled much of the vacuum. But they did not fill all of it, and in the interstices a new Cold War has taken shape.

Criticism of Gorbachev the statesman should not overshadow a qualified admiration for Gorbachev the man. He was certainly not holy, but neither was he wholly foolish. And he was no villain, despite the scorn that many Russians have come to feel for him. As Prince Hamlet said of his deceased kingly father: “He was a man, take him for all in all.”

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  • MICHAEL KIMMAGE is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America and a Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.
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