Not Just About Gorbachev: Disastrous Leaders Throughout History Around The World
Not Simply about Gorbachev
It is perhaps safe to assume that neither he nor any other dead person can come back to compensate for his mistakes or improve on his record. In this short essay, I will point to some of the things that we can improve on, before we join the ranks of the dead.
I was born in Turkey, a country that was (and remains) a ‘client state’ of the U.S. The Cold War had more to do with Turkey than with some other NATO countries (after all, it was but a recent stage of the kind of international conflict that existed in that region for millennia).
I gained some familiarity with military matters in my teenage years. Most of my adult life, I wrote about global matters like disarmament, de-escalation, demobilization, etc.
Many people who were born long before Gorbachev was born dedicated their lives to similar causes; and they passed away without making even the local news…
Some ‘peaceniks’ who are still alive deserve our respect and criticism –constructive or otherwise.
Despite the fact that Turks and Russians fought more than a dozen wars in the last few hundred years, the official news channel in Turkey (TRT) did not report the events in a way that depicted the full extent of the stupidity and criminality behind the man-made disaster.
But the facts did ‘shine through’ in time… Before the officials of the U.S.S.R. made any statements about what happened in Chernobyl, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority reported high levels of radiation in Sweden, more than 620 miles away.
It was only upon the insistence of the Swedish scientists, et al., that the media in the U.S.S.R. released information about the location and the extent of the disaster.
They were also late to evacuate the people in the region –and they started to do so on too small a scale. Gorbachev may have been underinformed or ill-informed about the disaster in the first few hours.
But he certainly failed to act as a leader responsible for the welfare of ‘his own people.’
He also failed to demonstrate the minimum responsibility that the leader of a state should feel toward his neighboring states.
Whether he realized it early on or not, the radiation from the disaster ended up traveling around the globe, affecting and harming people thousands of miles away –far beyond the immediately neighboring states.
Gorbachev is given credit for having fired many ineffectual and corrupt politicians and officials.
In this respect, he may have performed far better than his predecessors in the U.S.S.R. That said, someone who failed so miserably in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster would, in a ‘more enlightened and just political system,’ be sacked immediately, and he would not be allowed to come near a position of public responsibility –even after being punished severely.
Reform-minded people who somehow find themselves in power may indeed be able to facilitate change ‘in the right direction,’ free up dissidents, punish criminal officials, create opportunities for good works, etc.
And Gorbachev must have done some of that. However, those of us who recognize the criminality of nation-states and empires are not duty-bound to sing the praises of leaders who implement top-down reforms.
Many people living under the Soviet yoke saw the Communist Party as a large criminal organization. They would never agree to join it in the first place.
Many of those who joined the Party may have performed far worse than Gorbachev did; but that is not saying much…
The Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (or Amenhotep IV, c. 1353–1336 or 1351–1334 BC) may be among the most striking reformers, as well as a prominent advocate of monotheism.
The Indian emperor Ashoka (c. 304 – 232 BCE) was a victorious warrior-king who tried to end all wars in his region, and give much of the credit to his adopted religion: Buddhism. Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) was a top-down reformer. Thousands died working for just one of his construction projects: Saint Petersburg.
Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898) was a conservative German statesman who established a form of welfare state –thereby attempting to weaken a socialist movement in his country.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is another top-down reformer. Some of his contemporaries and rivals accused him of betraying his class through his New Deal. Some others accused him of keeping capitalism alive in the U.S.
It is not possible to prove, in each case, that such reformers achieved far less than what some of their contemporaries could have achieved, if they had been given the chance to.
Akhenaten and Ashoka reigned in times when there were no pamphleteers like Thomas Paine (1736 – 1809)… Put differently, we have no written record of what any of their contemporaries were advocating for.
Still, it may make sense to adopt a critical view of those who end up being at the top of a hierarchical system, no matter how dedicated they appear to work to improve the lot of their ‘subjects.’
The Soviet Union inherited the territories of a vast and expansionist empire. The Bolsheviks waged bloody wars to hold on to some of the Tsarist Russia’s territories in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution.
Stalin annexed part of Poland, and later annexed three Baltic states during World War II. Gorbachev, it must be conceded, did not prove to be as bloodthirsty or repressive as Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev (1906 – 1982); but he did send troops into Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku in January 1990. Scores of civilians were killed there, as well as Soviet soldiers.
He also tried to forestall the attempts of the three Baltic states to secede from the Soviet Union.
As Boris Yeltsin (1931 – 2007) commented, Gorbachev tried to make room for political pluralism, while trying to maintain the power of the Communist Party.
That kind of pluralism is not likely to impress those who perceive the Communist Party as a criminal organization. No doubt, some of the opponents of the Communist Party, or of state power in general, are criminals themselves, organized or otherwise.
Sadly, some of Gorbachev’s policies ended up creating new opportunities for such criminals to prey on their co-nationals…
The poverty and powerlessness that many Russian citizens experience today is due, in large part, to the exponential increase in crime and widespread theft, as well as the destruction of natural resources.
Reagan and Gorbachev both made bold decisions to reduce the nuclear arsenals of their respective countries. They both seemed to be determined to de-escalate the military tensions between the two blocs that they were the leaders of.
That said, many people had been advocating for even more extensive disarmament and de-escalation decades before the rise to power of Reagan and Gorbachev.
For one thing, in order to be permanent, disarmament should not be left to nation-states or empires.
Supranational bodies should be able to monitor and verify disarmament, and they should be able to punish even ‘world leaders,’ if the latter fail to comply with the requirements of disarmament and de-escalation.
Can it be denied that neither leader so much as expressed the need for the creation of such supranational bodies?
George Shultz was present in a meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev when they floated the idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
Mr. Shultz is said to have jumped on the idea. But there was an important disagreement. Gorbachev insisted that the U.S. should cease the research into the ‘Star Wars’ Program (S.D.I.); and Reagan declined to do so…
Looking back, can we convince ourselves that these two leaders were in a position to force countries like China and India to dismantle all their nuclear weapons, and to cease to finance research into the development of any weapons of mass destruction?
There are times in history when people who committed serious crimes experience a ‘moral transformation.’ They may then become exceptionally effective in warning people about similar crimes.
Ashoka, the one-time warrior, was such a man. John Newton (1725 – 1807) was a participant in the slave trade who later became an abolitionist, and no doubt recruited many to his adopted cause.
When Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (1881 – 1940) wrote against wars (in his book “War Is a Racket”), he may have converted some people who would not listen to lifelong pacifists.
Daniel Ellsberg (born 1931) worked for the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon, before (finally) seeing the criminality and futility of the American bombing of Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos). Many of his cohorts would refuse to work for the Pentagon; and they were not the ones who gained access to the “Pentagon Papers.”
John Perkins (born 1945) writes in “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” that the men from the National Security Agency who interviewed him were glad to find out that he had a major weakness that the latter can use: Infatuation with women (of certain kinds).
He suggests that people who appear to be incorruptible may not be recruited by the National Security Agency. Perkins did end up doing some dirty work; he was rewarded both financially and sexually; but ended up writing about his past crimes…
Edward J. Snowden (born 1983) accepted a job that many ‘technology specialists’ or computer programmers would not accept for any amount of money. Nevertheless, some of them may be grateful today for the information that Snowden revealed.
There had been many prominent thinkers and writers who had joined the Communist Party in their country, faced some shocking facts during their service to the Party, and later chose to write critically of (‘actually existing’) communism.
Also, there had been prominent communists who became critical of their deceased leaders and/or one-time comrades.
Gorbachev wrote that he and some of his friends were inspired, in their youth, by Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in which he denounced (some of) Stalin’s crimes. Deng Xiaoping (1904 – 1997) parted ideologically with his older comrade Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976).
Still, both Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping remained loyal to their respective versions of communism.
The world will never know how many reform-minded people were executed as traitors by the Communist Parties in various countries. Nor will we ever know how many children and youth starved to death, or died in accidents in coal mines or factories in countries with whatever regime, long before they could make sense of political reforms…
Whether or not the end of the Cold War brought qualitative differences in the policies of the U.S.A. or Russia, the fact remains that some nation-states continue to act as each other’s enemies.
The countries that are too weak to act as aggressors are also guilty of taking interstatal antagonism for granted, and of forcing their citizenry to contribute to rearmament, spying, etc.
Well-informed historians and conscientious people may disagree about how much praise and or condemnation each politician deserves, in terms of the foreign and domestic policies of their respective governments.
As I stated at the outset, I am resigned to such conflict of opinions. As I see it, there is a more relevant and timely discussion that we should join: How well did we, ordinary citizens do since the end of World War II –to pick a date that some of us remember?
Joseph Rotblat (1908 – 2005) was a scientist who joined the Manhattan Project with the intention of building the Atom Bomb before the Nazi Germany.
I think he is another example of a person who joined a morally questionable enterprise –many of his colleagues would refuse to make that choice.
But he ended up raising his objection to the continuation of the Project, once it became clear that the Nazi government had long ago abandoned their nuclear program.
Many peaceniks continue to sing the praises of this man of conscience who dedicated himself to nuclear disarmament.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), and many other men and women of conscience advocated for the formation of a supranational body to control all nuclear weapons, weaponizable materials, etc., and appealed to Americans not to use their (then) monopoly to threaten other countries.
Joseph Rotblat joined them. Their proposals did not make any waves in the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R.
This does not mean that they were fools to propose them in the first place. As I see it, the fools and criminals were the ones who were in a position to implement such policies, and chose not to do so.
He said something like: “Suppose that an alien force from space invades the U.S., and causes much death and destruction in our country. Our military might is no match against theirs. Would you come to our aid?” [I would like to know the day when this meeting took place, and what the exact words were –in English.]
Gorbachev replied without hesitation: “Yes, we would!” Despite my verdict on his performance days after the Chernobyl disaster, despite calling him an irresponsible neighbor, I see no reason to doubt his sincerity.
After all, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. fought together as allies against the Nazi Germany. And an alien force can indeed be much worse than the U.S., even in the eyes of ideological and economic ‘foes.’
I remember a day in our 1979-1980 academic year in High School. Our Philosophy teacher (yes, we did have a not-so-serious course on Philosophy in High School) commented on the ongoing international conflict. She said that, if our planet were invaded by aliens, all countries would unite as one. At the time, I asked myself “Do we really need alien invaders to do the right thing?! Are there not enough pressing reasons for us to join forces to fight global problems facing humankind?”
[I promise to expand on what concerned and responsible individuals can do, even in the face of political repression.]
Banner Image: Gorbachev and Reagan. Image Credit – 4536207
I really enjoyed reading your words. Truly from the heart, from the mind, and from experience. Nothing is greater than people sharing their real-life stories.
I just wonder one thing after reading: How do we keep the forces tasked with disarmament honest? Not taking bribes and letting everyone keep their bombs and such?
And, how do they enforce the peace? Conventional arms? How do they get states not willing to comply, to comply?
Thank you for the interesting article!