Mikhail Gorbachev  –  The man who dismantled an empire without force

People who don’t understand the importance of co-operation and disarmament shouldn’t go into politics… there should be no place for such people in politics. But they’re very much there… in the defence industry and politics.

How different would the world be if we had more world leaders – past, present, future – who believed in these sentiments, held firm by Mikhail Gorbachev, who died yesterday aged 91.

Donald Trump’s election and term in office turbo-charged hitherto fairly marginal discussions about the relationship between power and personality traits such as narcissism and sociopathy. The financial crisis had acted as the spur to this debate when questions began to be asked about the reckless nature of those in finance who brought about the financial crash.

And during the early very dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the search for empathy in leadership began to take place as the world’s attention focussed on female leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinta Arden, held up as a counter-balance to Trump, Bolsanoro and our own Boris Johnson.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a man whose life and work was rooted in principles of empathy and co-operation. Sadly, his optimism for a corresponding approach from his western counterparts at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union was unmet and he died seeing Russia caught up in the very east/west antagonism he had worked so very hard to eliminate over decades. And his hope for the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Empire playing out alongside denuded Russian power and influence was perhaps always going to prove an impossible dream. According to Nina Kruscheva, Kruschev’s grand-daughter, she had heard that Gorbachev was “completely devastated” by the war.

“In the almost 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev became an increasingly sad figure, respected but ignored in the West, reviled at home. The 1990s in Russia saw his hopes of reform collapse in an orgy of looting and cynicism. The West betrayed its promise to him not to expand NATO, and replaced his dream of a ‘Common European Home’ with a U.S. and EU order that excluded Russia and sought to turn it into an impotent satellite.

Putin, though he received Gorbachev’s qualified approval, created a state antithetical to Gorbachev’s ideals. And in the final negation of those ideals, Russia invaded Ukraine in the name of a brutal great power nationalism, evoking in turn a fierce Ukrainian ethnic nationalism and permanently dividing the ethnicities of Gorbachev’s father and mother.”

Anatole Lieven  

Leaders who fight to keep their empires alive often do so with support of their people – thus Gorbachev’s reforms would always face opposition.

“The international approval Gorbachev basked in, however, was not shared by most of his fellow-countrymen. Many Russians blamed him until his dying day for what they saw as the humiliation of their country, the loss of its great power status and, for many, the decline of a multi-ethnic ideal. This was largely why Gorbachev’s fitful attempts to play a post-Soviet political role failed dismally. He seemed not truly to grasp the contempt in which he was held by many Russians, who blamed him for their country’s loss of its status as a great power.

Russia’s war on Ukraine can be seen in many ways as a conflict that was mercifully avoided when the Soviet Union broke up, but was always lurking in the wings as a possibility, in the event that the two most powerful and populous post-Soviet nations could not work out a new relationship as two sovereign states. Mikhail Gorbachev deserves all the immense credit he has been accorded as a leader who accepted the break-up of his country with dignity, rather than trying to keep it together by force.”

Mary Dejevsky

Maybe this is why Mikhail Gorbachev will not receive a state funeral.



Just as Eisenhower spoke out about the military industrial complex, so Gorbachev was equally visionary. He was forthright and outspoken on abolition of nuclear weapons; why we need to be alert to the self-serving nature of the government/arms industry relationship (he had called for 10-15% cuts to military spending to find human security and post-pandemic needs); and the failure of world leadership to deliver co-operation in international relations.

Gorbachev’s insights profoundly inform our Transform Defence project.

What we urgently need now is a rethinking of the entire concept of security. Even after the end of the Cold War, it has been envisioned mostly in military terms. Over the past few years, all we’ve been hearing is talk about weapons, missiles and airstrikes… The overriding goal must be human security: providing food, water and a clean environment and caring for people’s health. To achieve it, we need to develop strategies, make preparations, plan and create reserves. But all efforts will fail if governments continue to waste money by fueling the arms race… I’ll never tire of repeating: we need to demilitarize world affairs, international politics and political thinking.

Time Magazine, April 15, 2020

Rest in Peace


In 2018 film-makers Werner Herzog and Andre Singer released their acclaimed documentary ‘Meeting Gorbachev’. It is an incredibly powerful, moving and politically revelatory film.

More about it here. A beautiful film, it’s full of insights into the man and his times.


The Gorbachev Foundation https://www.gorby.ru/en/gorbachev/publications/
Speeches https://www.gorby.ru/userfiles/file/gorbaghev_book_speeches_en.pdf
Biography  https://www.gorby.ru/en/gorbachev/biography/